House Republicans are accelerating their focus on launching an impeachment inquiry against President Biden, even as some in the party still express caution about establishing a precedent of impeaching presidents of the opposing party and worry about the political fallout so close to a presidential election year.
For the first six months of the Republican House majority, Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) has worked to keep his far-right flank satisfied in their desire to target Biden by greenlighting investigations into the president, his son Hunter Biden and members of the administration, including Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas. But McCarthy’s comments earlier this week that indicated he is open to impeachment proceedings represent a shift in both rhetoric and tactics.
McCarthy has not detailed evidence House Republicans have that would merit an impeachment inquiry. But in meetings this week he has told lawmakers and some members of his leadership team that he is “moving closer” to an impeachment inquiry though he’s not there yet, according to multiple people who attended the meetings who spoke on the condition of anonymity to reveal internal conversations.
“Impeachment inquiry is not impeachment,” McCarthy told reporters. “Impeachment inquiry is allowing Congress to get the information.”
The Republican majority is entering what many lawmakers privately acknowledge is a treacherous time that will test the ideological factions of their conference.
McCarthy opening the door to an impeachment inquiry comes as he works to nullify a threat from far-right lawmakers to derail several must-pass funding bills and as some in his party, including a member of his leadership team, are pushing to expunge former president Donald Trump’s impeachments, an action with questionable legal and practical viability. Far-right lawmakers in the House Freedom Caucus are publicly reminding colleagues that McCarthy’s speakership largely hinges on promises made in January to reduce spending significantly and are demanding steeper cuts that could make for difficult votes for vulnerable incumbents seeking to keep their seats and the GOP majority.
McCarthy has spent the past several days trying to sell his conference on pursuing impeachment, saying an inquiry would allow a more robust investigation of Biden. But he has not had to do much convincing as a significant swath of the Republican conference already has set its sights on targeting Biden ahead of the 2024 election or is comfortable with slow-rolling an impeachment vote by launching an investigative phase.
The White House has pushed back against the GOP talk of impeachment, with spokesman Ian Sams tweeting earlier this week, “Their eagerness to go after [the president] regardless of the truth is seemingly bottomless.”
McCarthy has not indicated specifically when he might officially open an inquiry but has told reporters the timing hinges on how quickly the administration provides Republicans with information they are requesting through congressional investigations. But McCarthy and others also have touted information they say they have learned in those inquiries, without offering specifics, as reasoning to move forward on impeachment.
“We continue to gather more information,” McCarthy told reporters. “We’re finding more and more.”
Most Republicans have cautiously approached impeaching Biden since regaining the majority earlier this year, with McCarthy privately acknowledging that he did not want to establish the precedent of impeaching every president who is not from the same party as the House majority. But Republicans insist they would do things differently than House Democrats — who impeached Trump twice when they had the majority — by arguing that they would be meticulous in investigating before immediately launching an impeachment vote against Biden.
Any impeachment inquiry would come alongside ongoing legal issues involving Trump, who is the front-runner in the Republican presidential primary race and is facing two indictments — one by a Manhattan grand jury for alleged campaign finance and other violations and another by a federal grand jury over classified documents. Trump also recently announced he received a target letter from the Justice Department over efforts to overturn the 2020 election on Jan. 6, 2021, indicating a possible third indictment.
“We are not politicizing the word ‘impeachment’ or the process. If there are high crimes and misdemeanors, we will follow the Constitution. If there are not, then we won’t do what Nancy Pelosi did,” said Rep. Byron Donalds (R-Fla.), referencing the former Democratic speaker and arguing she used the process as a political tool.
As separate investigations into Biden’s family and his Cabinet have continued, many lawmakers have begun to remark that there is enough evidence to launch a formal investigation, which has contributed to McCarthy renewing his attention on pursuing impeachment. Republicans are investigating Hunter Biden’s business dealings in China and Ukraine during the Obama administration, when his father was vice president.
“I told him what we’re sitting on, and I told him the next steps,” House Oversight and Accountability Committee Chairman James Comer (R-Ky.) told reporters Tuesday, referring to McCarthy, but not offering specifics. “And I think he felt confident enough [on Monday] on the Hannity show to say that we’re taking the preliminary steps toward impeachment inquiry,” he said, referring to Fox News host Sean Hannity.
Yet some Republicans have questioned whether McCarthy’s recent push — which until then had not been discussed in months — is meant to appease far-right lawmakers ahead of contentious fights expected in September over government funding, when it’s believed their demands for cuts will not be approved by a Democratic-controlled Senate.
“This is impeachment theater,” Rep. Ken Buck (R-Colo.), a member of the House Freedom Caucus, said on CNN. “[McCarthy] has got to convince the public that he is credible, and that Republicans have a duty to follow him. The party itself is not in agreement, and we’re going to have some real trouble passing appropriations bills.”
Rep. Tony Gonzales (R-Tex.) echoed the sentiment, noting that as speaker, McCarthy has the prerogative to set the agenda for the conference “and if the agenda is to impeach everyone under the sun, then that will be the route in which we go.”
Former speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), who has advised McCarthy on the issue, is fully supportive of McCarthy launching an inquiry but cautioned against actually voting to remove Biden from office.
“It’s a good idea to go to the inquiry stage,” Gingrich said. But “impeachment itself is a terrible idea.”
That approach gives leadership a happy medium to pursue what many in the conference seek, but also temporarily ensures that vulnerable Republicans representing swing districts do not get caught up in the debate.
Vulnerable Republicans are growing increasingly concerned over leadership prioritizing far-right demands, including on impeachment. As they prepare to return to their districts for a month-long recess in August, they fear that constituents may view the GOP as more focused on the culture wars than on delivering results on the economy or other issues.
Rep. David G. Valadao (R-Calif.), one of two Republicans still in Congress who voted to impeach Trump after the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol, said “I haven’t decided yet” if impeachment is good for his reelection chances.
Rep. Kelly Armstrong (R-N.D.), who is from a conservative district and is a former prosecutor, said an inquiry might be necessary. But he noted that impeachment is a “political remedy.”
“We shouldn’t just do something to make our base feel [good]. That could cost us an election,” Armstrong said. “We should do this the right way. And I think so far we have.”
While the House could eventually move to impeach Biden, Republican senators would rather voters determine during the election next year whether Biden deserves more time in office.
“I said two years ago when we had not one, but two impeachments, that once we go down this path, it incentivizes the other side to do the same thing,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Wednesday. “Impeachment ought to be rare rather than common. And so, I’m not surprised that, having been treated the way they were, House Republicans let Congress begin to open up the possibility of doing it again. And I think this is not good for the country to have repeated impeachment problems.”