Wisconsin lawmakers played key parts in past impeachments

From Andrew Johnson to Donald Trump

Gavel with
(Photo by Nick Youngson, Alpha Stock Images, license CC BY-SA 3.0)

WASHINGTON — A Wisconsin Republican was among those picked to make the case to the U.S. Senate for ousting the president from the White House. 

It was January 1999. 

Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner had been chosen to be among the 13 U.S. House Republicans urging senators to eject President Bill Clinton from office after the House voted to impeach him in December 1998. He was charged with perjury and obstruction of justice in the aftermath of his affair with a White House intern. 

Rep. James Sensenbrenner

Sensenbrenner made his case for impeachment on the Senate floor. “To keep a president in office, whose gross misconduct and criminal actions are a well-established fact, will weaken the authority of the presidency, undermine the rule of law, and cheapen those words, which have made America different from most other nations in the earth; ‘equal justice under law,’” he said. 

Fast forward to 2019, and the Wisconsin Republican feels very differently about the push to impeach the sitting president. House Democrats are launching an official impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump after revelations that he pressured Ukraine’s president to investigate the son of former Vice President Joe Biden. 

“I would feel differently if there was a quid pro quo involved on that, but merely to find out if [Biden’s son] Hunter Biden was violating the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, I don’t think there is anything wrong with that,” Sensenbrenner told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

“Asking the new president of Ukraine, who ran on an anti-corruption platform, to look into that, I do not think was out of bounds.”

Sensenbrenner, who has announced that he’ll retire when his current term expires, supports Trump and has been critical of Democrats’ impeachment efforts. 

He told the Wisconsin Examiner in an interview in early September that the exercise is a waste of time. “There is no chance that the Senate is going to remove Trump from office,” he said. “This is a political exercise which will divide the country. … The question is, why are you dividing the country when, if the public is so willing, they can vote him out of office in November?” 

Sensenbrenner said Clinton’s impeachment didn’t start out as a political exercise. There were “a lot of Democratic senators that were expressing doubts on Clinton’s innocence,” he said. 

Partisan split

Wisconsin’s House delegation split along party lines during the Clinton impeachment. All four Republicans at the time — Reps. Mark Neumann, Scott Klug, Thomas Petri and Sensenbrenner — voted for at least two of the four articles of impeachment. Klug was the only one to break ranks, voting against two of the four articles.  

The state’s five House Democrats — Reps. Ron Kind, Gerald Kleczka, Tom Barrett, David Obey and Jay Johnson — uniformly opposed the articles of impeachment. Two of them, Kind and Kleczka, had voted at the outset to launch an impeachment inquiry. 

Rep. Ron Kind in front of American Flag
Rep. Ron Kind (official portrait)

Kind defended his votes against Clinton’s impeachment in December 1998. ”If we start short-circuiting this process and merely require an impeachable offense that’s being voted on in the House to dictate when the president is going to be driven from office, I think it’s going to do a grave injustice to the impeachment process as established in the Constitution.” His remarks were published in the Wisconsin State Journal

Kind added: ”Our founding fathers never intended it to be this easy to overturn the will of the American people.” Kind is one of the few House Democrats who hasn’t called for an impeachment inquiry into Trump. 

Klug said in 1998 of his support for Clinton’s impeachment, ”If we allow the president to escape an impeachment trial in the Senate, we set a dangerous precedent where every president will have a built-in defense for perjury or obstruction of justice,” according to the State Journal. 

The House approved two articles of impeachment, sending them to the Senate to decide whether to remove Clinton from office.  

During the Senate trial that ensued, Wisconsin Sen. Russ Feingold enraged his party when he opposed Democrats’ effort to end the impeachment proceedings early. He was the lone Democratic senator to vote against a motion to dismiss the trial, which had already gotten under way. =

“Votes to the contrary, Mr. Feingold said, would have been an assertion that there was no possible way for the House trial managers to convince him and other senators that Mr. Clinton should be removed from office, and he had not reached that point of certainty yet,” The New York Times reported at the time. The Democrats’ motion failed. 

The Senate ultimately acquitted Clinton, largely along partisan lines. Feingold joined Wisconsin’s other senator at the time, Democrat Herb Kohl, in voting to acquit the president on both articles of impeachment. 

Nixon impeachment proceedings

Wisconsin’s nine House lawmakers voted uniformly in 1974 to launch an impeachment inquiry against President Richard Nixon, who was facing intense scrutiny over the Watergate scandal. 

The Wisconsin House Democrats at the time were Reps. Leslie Aspin, Robert Kastenmeier, Clement Zablocki, Henry Reuss and Dave Obey. The Republicans were Reps. Vernon Thomson, William Steiger, Harold Froehlich and Glenn Davis. 

Two of those lawmakers — Kastenmeier and Froehlich — were members of the House Judiciary Committee, which voted in July 1974 to recommend Nixon’s impeachment. 

Froehlich was one of six Republicans who joined all 21 Democrats (including Kastenmeier) to vote to send an article of impeachment to the full House. The first article the panel approved charged Nixon with unlawful activities obstructing the investigation of the Watergate scandal.  

Froehlich had told reporters in advance that he would probably abstain, but voted for impeachment, the Times reported

Kastenmeier said at the time that “President Nixon’s conduct in office is a case history of the abuse of presidential power.”

Nixon resigned before the full House voted on the articles of impeachment. 

First presidential impeachment

Andrew Johnson, a Democrat, was the first president to be impeached by the House. 

black and white historical photo of the Andrew Johnson impeachment committee
The Johnson impeachment committee

In the aftermath of the Civil War and President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, Johnson’s congressional critics attempted to oust him from office in 1868, charging that he had illegally removed the secretary of war to replace him with an official more likely to support Johnson’s agenda.  

The House approved articles of impeachment against Johnson, sending them to the Senate. Wisconsin had five Republicans in the House at the time and one Democrat, Charles Eldredge. The delegation split along party lines, with every Republican voting for impeachment. 

After the Senate trial, Wisconsin’s two Republican senators split on Johnson’s impeachment. Sen. Timothy Howe voted to impeach, but Sen. James Rood Doolittle voted against removing Johnson. 

The effort to convict Johnson fell one vote short (35 to 19) of the two-thirds majority that would have been needed to oust him from office.


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