Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., arrives to speak to the media about impeachment, Wednesday, Dec. 18, 2019, on Capitol Hill in Washington. Credit: Jacquelyn Martin | AP

WASHINGTON — The House of Representatives began debate Wednesday leading up to a vote in the evening to impeach President Donald Trump for abusing his office and obstructing Congress, a condemnation that only two other U.S. presidents have faced in the nation’s history.

Despite the historic nature of the vote to charge the president with committing high crimes and misdemeanors, the day’s proceedings lack much suspense: Trump’s fate has been sealed for days, if not weeks, in the Democratic-controlled House. Enough members of the House have publicly said they will vote for impeachment to ensure passage.

The back-to-back votes on two articles of impeachment, slated for about 8 p.m. Eastern time, are expected to fall almost entirely along party lines. Several hundred pro-impeachment protesters gathered outside the Capitol on a cold but sunny morning to cheer on the Democrats.

His accusers charge that Trump abused his power when he asked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden and his son while Trump was withholding a promised White House meeting and critical military aid to the U.S. ally.

Defending Trump, Republicans argued that Trump was skeptical of corruption in Ukraine and said that since most of the U.S. aid ultimately was released, no harm was done.

As the House votes Wednesday evening, Trump is scheduled to take the stage at a campaign rally in Michigan near the home of Rep. Justin Amash, a Republican turned independent who plans to support impeachment — the only non-Democrat who has said he intends to do so.

Trump, who chose not to participate in the formal impeachment hearing, lambasted the proceedings Tuesday in a blistering six-page letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in which he denied any wrongdoing and said impeachment would backfire against Democrats at the polls.

“You are making a mockery of impeachment and you are scarcely concealing your hatred of me, of the Republican Party, and tens of millions of patriotic Americans,” he wrote.

Lawmakers spent Wednesday morning on the House floor making final speeches for and against the impeachment articles.

Most regular business in the House, such as committee hearings, was rescheduled, and lawmakers had little to do but wait and observe the debate. Republicans started the day by forcing a vote to adjourn the House, a delay tactic commonly used by the minority party before significant votes. The tactic failed.

Rep. Pete Aguilar, D-Calif., planned to spend some time in the chamber listening to the debate and said he might answer phone calls “to see what the volume is like” from constituents calling his office.

“It’s just seriousness and waiting,” he said. “I don’t think the outcome’s in question. I think everybody just wants to get there.”

Much of the debate echoed the arguments presented in hours of public hearings and television interviews since Pelosi announced the impeachment inquiry Sept. 24.

Democrats framed the impeachment as a solemn event that the House had to pursue because Trump threatened the nation’s security.

“The question before us comes down to this, should a president be allowed to ask a foreign nation to interfere in an American election?” said Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass.

Republicans blasted the impeachment effort as a politically motivated retribution for Trump’s election.

“Democrats have been searching for a reason to impeach President Trump since the day he was elected,” said Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla.

There was never much suspense into whether the House would have the votes. Centrist Democrats who for months resisted calls from more progressive Democrats to try to remove Trump from office now say the president’s offenses warrant impeachment.

If the House votes Wednesday as expected, the articles of impeachment would go to the GOP-controlled Senate, where Republicans have shown little appetite for a lengthy trial. That step would get underway in early January.

Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky has signaled it is all but impossible for Democrats to garner the 67 votes needed to convict the president and remove him from office.

That would be in keeping with American history. The Senate did not convict President Andrew Johnson in 1868 or President Bill Clinton in 1999 after their impeachments. Wednesday’s vote is slated to take place one day short of 21 years since Clinton faced the same fate in the House.

Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., the majority whip, argued that impeachment was moving politically against the Democrats.

“If they don’t see that, they should,” Thune said. “Let the voters decide the outcome in the next election, which isn’t all that far away.”

Trump is frustrated by the process in the House that has led to his likely impeachment Wednesday, but he’s also a “realist,” Thune said.

“He knows now that the opportunity to defend himself is in the Senate, hopefully,” he said, “And he’ll soon get that chance.”

In the weeks leading up to the vote, Pelosi has tried to strike a somber, solemn tone, underscoring Democrats’ argument that they have pursued impeachment because they believe it is their constitutional duty to do so.

“No Member came to Congress to impeach a President,” she wrote to fellow Democrats on Tuesday night. Their oath of office “makes us Custodians of the Constitution. If we do not act, we will be derelict in our duty.”

Although the vast majority of Democrats plan to support the articles of impeachment, there are a few outliers.

Rep. Jared Golden of Maine said he would support the article of impeachment charging abuse of power but not obstruction of Congress. One Democrat who opposed impeachment, Rep. Jeff Van Drew of New Jersey, plans to switch parties.

Democrats pledged they would not strong-arm their members to support the articles — and swore that politics played no role in their decision.

“No one raised their hand and swore to defend the polling data,” said House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md.

Republicans are expected to be unified. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., anticipated Tuesday that no GOP lawmaker would support the articles.

“The facts are on our side,” he said.

The political fallout of the vote may not be clear until the November 2020 election, in which voters will decide whether Trump will get a second term and whether Democrats will continue to control the House.

The fallout could be particularly noticeable in the congressional districts that flipped from a Republican lawmaker to a Democratic one in the 2018 election.

The White House has already targeted one of those lawmakers, Rep. Gil Cisneros, D-Calif., for his impeachment vote.

“Instead of working to uplift the middle class as promised, Rep. Gil Cisneros joins Nancy Pelosi and the rest of the coastal elites in support of their baseless impeachment proceedings,” said White House deputy press secretary Steven Groves.

Cisneros — who last week was one of the few Democrats to attend the congressional Christmas party at the White House — said his district is split 50-50 on the issue.

“If I’m going to look at every poll that needs to be done or decide which way the wind is blowing before I take a vote, then maybe I don’t belong here in this job,” Cisneros said in an interview. “I’m doing this for the benefit of our country and protecting our Constitution, and I’ll live with that. I have no regrets at all in supporting the impeachment of the president.”

As debate began in the House, a few hundred protesters gathered in the December chill outside the Capitol building.

The crowd was small compared with the turnout for some of the protests held Tuesday in support of impeachment from Oregon to New York to Florida.

But their cheers could occasionally be heard inside — and that’s what they were counting on, said Richard and Jill Watson.

The couple from Chevy Chase, Md., was well aware that the House debate would likely lead to impeachment of a president for only the third time in U.S. history, and that the Senate was unlikely to remove him from office.

“It’s extremely important for me to show that I care enough to get out at this subfreezing moment and protest at the Capitol,” Jill Watson said. “To show (lawmakers) but also for all the friends around the country who aren’t here at ground zero.”