The last time the House of Representatives impeached a president, Donna Shalala was watching it on television from her office.

Twenty-one years ago, as Bill Clinton’s secretary of health and human services, she felt betrayed when she discovered that the president in whose Cabinet she served had lied under oath about his affair with a White House intern. Shalala told Clinton so to his face.

As debate in the impeachment proceedings against President Trump began Wednesday, Shalala – now a freshman member of the House from Florida – sat in the second row on the Democratic side of the chamber, waiting her turn to speak in favor of removing the president from office.

She had been promised 90 seconds, but got cut off after a minute. In the next hour or so, her office received a few dozen phone calls, mostly from people who had seen her on Fox News, none of whom live in her district.

When I asked her what it felt like to experience impeachment again, this time from such a different perspective, she told me: “Painful. It is just as painful now as it was then.”

Shalala had not been eager to do this. When other Democrats had been urging impeachment for Trump’s alleged obstruction of justice during the investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, she had urged restraint.

“So soon,” she said. “It’s not what I came to Washington to do, and not what I expected.”

What changed Shalala’s mind was the subsequent revelation – confirmed by the testimony of seasoned civil servants – that Trump had pressured a foreign government for ammunition that could be used against a political rival. No longer was it possible to argue that this was not an impeachable abuse of power, or that it should be left to voters to render a verdict next November.

There are at least a few similarities between 1998 and now. One is that both Clinton and Trump admitted to the actions that brought them – and the country – to this juncture.

But one big difference is that Trump claims not to see anything wrong with what he did.

Nor, it seems, does his party. “I confronted a president,” Shalala keeps telling her Republican colleagues. “What are you afraid of?”

Shalala was far from the only one who found herself unsettled to be witnessing a second impeachment in such a short span of the nation’s history.

Count me among them. On Dec. 19, 1998, I was sitting in nearly the exact spot in the House gallery as I was on Wednesday. On that day, there was an additional, unexpected twist when Bob Livingston, the Louisiana congressman whom Republicans had designated to be their next speaker, announced that he would resign instead because he, too, had been caught in an extramarital affair.

What stands out most in my memory from that debate was a passionate cry by Missouri’s Richard Gephardt, then the Democratic leader of the House: “The only way we stop this spiral is for all of us to finally say – enough. Let us step back from the abyss and let’s begin a new politics of respect and fairness and decency which raises what has come before.”

But, of course, the spiral continued its downward trajectory.

Two decades later, lawmakers in both parties intoned about the historic and momentous step they were taking. But it felt pretty much like an ordinary day on Capitol Hill, with each side talking past each other as they always do in a chamber that was mostly empty.

About an hour before the House debate began, a few hundred pro-impeachment demonstrators gathered in an area of the Capitol lawn that they probably did not realize is known as “the swamp.” Even the protests seemed dutiful – certainly nothing like the intensity everyone could feel the day the House passed the Affordable Care Act in 2010, when thousands of protesters surrounded the building, screaming so loudly that they could be heard inside.

That is probably because, from here, the script has already been written. Trump seems virtually certain to be acquitted in the Senate, which he will claim as a vindication.

On cable news, there will be endless speculation as to which party gets helped and which gets hurt.

But if things play out as they usually do in the Trump era, all of this will soon be subsumed in the next thermonuclear burst of chaos generated by a president who cannot be chastened or shamed.

Once again, the House is making a notch in history. What’s different this time, however, is no one really believes anything will change as a result.


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