Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) is tiptoeing through a political minefield as he weighs whether to open an official impeachment inquiry into President Biden.
Former President Trump, with whom McCarthy has kept a good relationship, is exerting public pressure to pursue impeachment without a long inquiry. So are voters in the GOP base, Republicans say. But moderate members of his conference question whether there is enough evidence to launch an inquiry, and there is the chance that any impeachment effort could backfire politically.
“The political situation is extremely fraught for McCarthy,” said Matthew Green, a politics professor at the Catholic University of America.
“The way I see impeachment is that it is a way for McCarthy to kind of throw some red meat to his right wing and to members of the Freedom Caucus in particular, to keep them happy and to try to keep his difficult party coalition together,” Green said.
McCarthy has repeatedly said that he will not pursue impeachment for “political purposes,” instead arguing that it is a “natural step forward” following a stream of information released by House GOP investigators over the summer about the Biden family’s foreign business dealings.
Still, he’s at the center of plenty of political pressure.
Trump pressure vs. moderate resistance
McCarthy argues that an inquiry would give the House more legal standing to expeditiously seek information from the Biden administration, insisting that opening one is not the same as impeaching Biden.
But Trump — who supported McCarthy through his 15-ballot Speakership election — is putting public pressure on McCarthy to move faster and help him punch back on his four indictments. Trump said on his Truth Social website last week that Republicans “don’t need a long INQUIRY” to have enough information to impeach Biden.
“These lowlifes Impeached me TWICE (I WON!), and Indicted me FOUR TIMES – For NOTHING! Either IMPEACH the BUM, or fade into OBLIVION. THEY DID IT TO US!” Trump said.
Some GOP members, such as Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (Ga.) and Ralph Norman (S.C.), have also pushed to quickly open an impeachment inquiry. Republicans have told The Hill that they are getting many phone calls and town hall questions asking when they will take the step toward impeachment.
But McCarthy does not have the full support from his conference yet, with more moderate members such as Rep. Don Bacon (R-Neb.) thinking that there is not enough “concrete evidence” to open an inquiry.
Republicans point to what they see as plenty of smoke — such as former Hunter Biden business associate Devon Archer saying that President Biden sometimes spoke to his son’s business associates despite previous denials (Archer said conversations he witnessed were limited to pleasantries), and allegations by IRS whistleblowers that prosecutors improperly slow-walked the tax crimes investigation into Hunter Biden (which Attorney General Merrick Garland and now-Special Counsel David Weiss have pushed back on).
But they have not shown that President Biden directly financially benefited from his son’s business dealings, and the White House has repeatedly denied any involvement by the president.
“You’re going to put some members in swing districts in a difficult position if you’re going to make them vote to impeach a president when their constituents don’t want them to,” said Green, the politics professor.
On a GOP Conference phone call last week, McCarthy told members that he wants to have a “family discussion” on impeachment when the House returns, according to a source familiar with the conversation.
Some think that McCarthy can pull his conference together, as he has for numerous other votes that stood on shaky ground earlier this year.
“At the end of the day, they all get in line,” one GOP strategist said of moderate Republican skeptics of impeachment.
Risk of political backlash
Some conservative operatives outside of Congress tell The Hill that while they see plenty of smoke surrounding the Bidens, they worry about an inquiry backfiring on Republicans — recalling the 1998 impeachment of then-President Clinton ahead of midterm election losses.
Former Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), who led the House when it impeached Clinton, said Republicans can learn from the 1998 impeachment.
“I think that that’s why I would urge him to go slower,” Gingrich told The Hill, arguing that a lot of the evidence in 1998 was not laid out publicly, and that Republicans could have developed the case more openly.
An inquiry now would also be far removed from the next general election. The House voted to start an impeachment inquiry in October 1998 following release of independent counsel Ken Starr’s report on Clinton the month before – just weeks before the midterm elections. It voted to impeach Clinton two months later, in December.
“Go slow. Get it all out in the open. Make sure the American people are with you,” said Gingrich, who frequently speaks with McCarthy.
While McCarthy argues that taking a step to open an inquiry is distinct from the House actually impeaching Biden, it would be politically unthinkable to not follow through on an inquiry with a vote on impeachment articles.
“If we go with an impeachment inquiry, we have no other choice but to impeach Joe Biden,” one GOP strategist told The Hill, warning that headlines would say that Republicans cleared Biden of wrongdoing. “How can we keep investigating Hunter Biden and Joe Biden on foreign business dealings if we’ve done inquiry at the apex of our powers and didn’t find enough to impeach him?”
The White House also warned there would be a backlash.
“This baseless impeachment exercise would be a disaster for congressional Republicans,” White House spokesperson Ian Sams said in a statement, pointing to Republican warnings that impeachment could backfire. “Instead of continuing their extreme, far-right political warfare to lie and try to politically damage the President, House Republicans should work with him on the issues that really matter to the American people, like lowering costs and creating jobs, or strengthening health care and education.”
Government funding complications
As talk of impeachment ramps up, McCarthy is separately wrangling conservatives in his conference demanding further spending cuts to support a stopgap funding bill ahead of a Sept. 30 shutdown deadline.
McCarthy argued last month on Fox’s “Sunday Morning Futures” that avoiding a government shutdown is critical to ensuring GOP investigations of Biden move forward.
“If we shut down, all the government shuts it down, investigation and everything else,” McCarthy said.
But if McCarthy hopes to win over the GOP members giving him grief about spending by pushing an impeachment inquiry, he could have his work cut out for him.
“Conservatives welcome the impeachment proceedings to uncover Biden family corruption, but it can’t be used as a distraction to give the Biden administration a blank check,” said Robert Donachie, a former senior conservative Capitol Hill aide and vice president at Athos PR. “He can’t posture on impeaching Biden to fund a weaponized federal government that will continue a two-tiered system of justice, an open border, and fix nothing that Americans truly want to see accomplished. Outside observers don’t see how his Speakership survives if he fails to actually have a fight.”
Rep. Matt Rosendale (R-Mont.), a member of the House Freedom Caucus, said on Fox Business that conservatives pushing spending cuts will not be “distracted by a shiny object” of impeachment.
On the other end of the spectrum, Greene is making opening an impeachment inquiry a condition of her vote in favor of a continuing resolution.