One of the last remaining Republican lawmakers who ran impeachment proceedings against Bill Clinton is preparing for the possibility he could end up fending off Democrats who want to do the same to President Donald Trump in 2019.
Ohio Rep. Steve Chabot has made his lengthy service in the House — including his experience as an impeachment floor manager in 1998 — a central plank of his bid to succeed Bob Goodlatte after Goodlatte‘s retirement as the top Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, one of the most prominent posts in Congress.
"There are very few that have gone through it," Chabot said of impeachment proceedings in an interview. "You can imagine it. You can think what it might be like. But if you’ve actually been there, it’s certainly an advantage. It also makes one understand why that’s to be avoided, if at all possible."
Chabot is the newest entrant in a quiet contest to lead the committee’s Republicans in 2019. He joins Rep. Doug Collins, a third-term Republican from Georgia, who revealed his interest in the post in March.
Chabot, who entered Congress after the Newt Gingrich-led insurgency of 1994, is touting his lengthy record and experience as a prime credential. Chabot notes that he introduced a 2003 bill banning late-term abortions, a measure that ultimately became law, and has been in the trenches on some of the most momentous fights in Congress in the past 25 years.
Collins, on the other hand, is leaning on close relationships to make his case for the job.
He's vice chairman of the Republican Conference, which makes him a member of leadership, and he sits on the House Republican Steering Committee, which will ultimately decide who becomes the next Judiciary chairman if Republicans keep control of the House. He's been traveling the country raising money for vulnerable colleagues and has recently undertaken a series of complex legislative initiatives that have helped him forge working relationships with Democrats on the committee, which he says will help him become an effective chairman, should he get the chance.
"It’s not about time here," Collins said in an interview. "It’s about what you get done, what you accomplish."
Chabot's entry complicates Collins' previously unobstructed path to a job that entails overseeing many of the most divisive issues facing the country — from immigration to guns to abortion to special counsel Robert Mueller's ongoing investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election. That’s why Chabot is emphasizing his extra edge — the Clinton impeachment — in case Democrats take control of the House and Republicans need someone on the Judiciary Committee who can play defense more than they need a legislative maven.
When it comes to impeachment, Chabot said his philosophy is to "be the responsible person," whether he's chairman or ranking member of the committee, "and do what facts warrant and do what's right for the country." He said he avoided being a "bomb-thrower" during the 1998 impeachment proceedings and earned respect from colleagues on both sides of the aisle as a result.
But he says he doesn't think the country is "near any kind of evidence being established that would sustain such an impeachment effort against this president."
Chabot, 65, a mild-mannered Cincinnati native, doesn't exude the hard-charging demeanor of some of the Judiciary panel's most conservative members, though he insists he's willing to drop the hammer to ensure the committee gets documents it demands from the Justice Department. He self-effacingly recalls his college football career at the College of William & Mary as a nose tackle under the tutelage of legendary coach Lou Holtz.
"The older I get, the better I was, as they say,” he said with a laugh.
But Chabot's elevator pitch leans heavily on his lengthy experience in the House, which was interrupted in 2008, when he lost a reelection bid to Democrat Steve Driehaus, only to take back the seat in 2010. He said he reminds colleagues he's worked with five Judiciary Committee chairmen: Reps. Henry Hyde, Jim Sensenbrenner, Lamar Smith, John Conyers and Goodlatte.
"I’ve had the opportunity to see what works, what doesn’t work," he said.
It's a pitch that's already resonating with some colleagues, who say Republicans shouldn't sidestep seniority to pick the next committee leader.
"Steve is a very steady hand who is thoughtful, reasoned and open to input from all members of the committee. Chabot clearly has the seniority and skills," said Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), who said he is "100 percent" behind Chabot to become the next GOP leader of the committee. "There is no reason to skip over him for anyone else."
Chabot's bid comes at a moment of dramatic change for the committee. Several top Republicans — including Goodlatte, Smith and Reps. Trey Gowdy of South Carolina, Darrell Issa of California and Ted Poe of Texas — have announced their retirement. Rep. Ron DeSantis (R-Fla.) is leaving to run for governor. The committee has also been locked in a tense struggle with the Justice Department over access to sensitive files connected to the FBI's 2016 investigation of Hillary Clinton and the ongoing probe into contacts between the Trump campaign and the Russian government during the presidential election.
Chabot said his stewardship of the House Small Business Committee, which he currently chairs, has helped him forge relationships on both sides of the aisle, and he hopes to use his bipartisan goodwill to bring down the temperature around issues that have riven the committee at times into partisan theatrics. He noted that the committee's top Democrat, Rep. Jerry Nadler of New York, worked alongside him when the two led the Judiciary panel's subcommittee on constitutional matters more than a decade ago.
"I think I’ve got the right temperament to head up a committee like Judiciary," he said, adding that he's always tried to run the Small Business Committee "in a bipartisan manner." "It’s kind of a win-win on both sides."
But Chabot also acknowledged that the committee tends to be populated by lawmakers who have sharply partisan inclinations. The panel has jurisdiction over hot-button social issues and sensitive policies that attract members who have little to fear from taking tough votes. And it tends to drive away moderates and deal-makers.
Chabot says his goal would be to legislate as much as possible, a nod to colleagues who have complained that issues often languish in committee and are bottled up without votes.
"My philosophy is we ought to be passing things," he said, describing his mantra as "don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good."
Chabot also signaled that despite some reservations about the Mueller investigation, he's largely in line with the faction of Republican lawmakers who want to let the probe play out.
"We don’t want to prejudge where it is," he said, though he said he'd seen no evidence of any cooperation between Trump associates and Russians to interfere in the election. "I’ve seen little or no evidence other than a meeting here or there which probably shouldn’t have happened — but to jump from there to an impeachable high crime and misdemeanor as a result of Russian collusion?"
"I’m not sure if there’s any ‘there’ there, but I’m reserving my judgment until the end of the process," he said.