DEMOCRATS yesterday rammed a package of ground rules for their impeachment inquiry of US President Donald Trump through a sharply divided House of Representatives.

It was the chamber’s first formal vote in a fight that could stretch into the 2020 election year. The tally was 232-196, with all Republicans against the resolution and just two Democratic defectors joining them.

The vote laid down the rules as politicians transition from weeks of closed-door interviews with witnesses to public hearings, and ultimately to possible votes on whether to recommend Trump’s removal from office. The action also took on more than a technical meaning, with each party aware that the impeachment effort looms as a defining issue for next year’s presidential and congressional campaigns.

The Halloween vote drew a familiar Twitter retort from Trump, who posted: “The greatest Witch Hunt in American History!”

White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham accused House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the Democrats of an “unhinged obsession with this illegitimate impeachment proceeding”.

During the debate, Democrats spoke of politicians’ duty to defend the constitution, while Republicans cast the process as a skewed attempt to railroad a president whom Democrats have detested since before he took office.

“What is at stake in all this is nothing less than our democracy,” Pelosi said.

Underscoring her point, she addressed the House with a poster of the American flag beside her and began her remarks by reading the opening lines of the preamble to the constitution. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy claimed Trump had done nothing impeachable and accused Democrats of trying to remove him “because they are scared they cannot defeat him at the ballot box”.

Number three House Republican leader Steve Scalise accused Democrats of imposing “Soviet-style rules”, speaking in front of a bright red poster depicting St Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow’s Red Square.

Independent Representative Justin Amash, who left the Republican Party earlier this year after saying he was open to considering whether Trump should be impeached, also backed the measure.

The investigation is focused on Trump’s efforts to push Ukraine to investigate his Democratic political opponents by withholding military aid and an Oval Office meeting craved by the country’s new president. Democrats said the procedures – which give them the ability to curb the president’s lawyers from calling witnesses – are similar to rules used during the impeachment proceedings of presidents Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton. Republicans complained they were skewed against Trump.

It is likely to take weeks or more before the House decides whether to vote on actually impeaching Trump. If the House does vote for impeachment, the Senate would hold a trial to decide whether to remove the president from office.

The rules lay out how the House intelligence committee, now leading the investigation by deposing diplomats and other officials behind closed doors, would transition to public hearings.

It would issue a report and release transcripts of its closed-door interviews. The judiciary committee would then decide whether to recommend the House impeaches Trump.

According to the rules for hearings, Republicans could only issue subpoenas for witnesses to appear if the entire panel approved them, in effect giving Democrats veto power.