House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) is walking a fine line on Capitol Hill.
On one end of his daily dance he has the hardcore far-right members of his caucus who routinely threaten to jam up all forms of legislative business in service of MAGAworld grievances and disingenuous austerity flexing. On the other, he has his moderates and those from swing districts whom he tries to keep happy and onboard with the party agenda while downplaying hardliner’s shenanigans. It’s a balance the Speaker must strike just to keep the House functioning with a slim majority.
This week that push and pull has become tangled around far-right House Republicans’ efforts to stall the appropriations process and their vested interest in impeaching President Joe Biden.
Far-right House Republicans have been making noise about impeaching Biden and a handful of other Cabinet officials for months. But up until this week it was just that — hollow shouts from the loudest flank of the House Republican caucus.
On Monday evening, McCarthy, in an unexpected tone shift, proclaimed to Fox News’ Sean Hannity that his caucus’ ongoing bogus probes into President Biden and his family are “rising to the level of impeachment inquiry.”
This, at least initially, signaled that the Speaker would perhaps entertain a Biden impeachment as he struggles to keep his conference together enough to pass this year’s appropriations bills. It was also a complete 180 from June, when he squashed an effort by Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-CO) to force an impeachment vote against Biden.
But less than a day after the Fox interview, McCarthy walked it back.
“I wasn’t announcing it,” McCarthy told reporters Tuesday, softening the comments he made during the Hannity interview. “I simply said that the actions that I’m seeing by this administration — withholding the agencies from being able to work with us, that would rise to the level of an impeachment inquiry.”
He dulled his previous statement further Thursday afternoon, saying he would only launch an inquiry if the White House does not hand over the information House Republicans are requesting, while clarifying he had raised the prospect of an “impeachment inquiry,” not impeachment.
“If they do not provide the information we need, then we will go to an impeachment inquiry,” McCarthy said during a Thursday press conference. “Impeachment inquiry,” he pressed again. “Which simply is an investigation and providing Congress the power to do that.”
This ongoing word game sparked enough confusion among members of his caucus this week that it prompted a closed-door meeting in the Speaker’s office where McCarthy and GOP leaders reportedly discussed the difference between an impeachment inquiry and an actual impeachment in depth, according to CNN. In that same meeting, McCarthy reportedly emphasized to his leadership team that an impeachment inquiry is just a way to launch a formal probe and get more information, and isn’t the same thing as impeachment.
That messaging could be key to convincing moderates in the GOP caucus who are skeptical of the effort to back an inquiry, CNN reported. But simply raising the word “impeachment” in public gives McCarthy a carrot to dangle in front of his far-right flank. And it’s a carrot that serves several purposes for MAGA Republicans who are hellbent on revenge for former President Donald Trump’s two impeachments as well as the legal heat he’s gotten from the Department of Justice and special counsel Jack Smith’s investigations.
“Surely some of [McCarthy’s] members are unhappy with the continual drumbeat of indictments, including from the Department of Justice,” Stephen M. Griffin, a constitutional law professor at the Tulane University Law School told TPM. “Therefore they want to strike back in an equal fashion and the way for them to do it and gain leverage on Biden is through an impeachment process. So it’s like tit for tat.”
Michael J. Gerhardt, a constitutional law professor at the University of North Carolina Law School echoed the same sentiment, calling the impeachment effort “an exercise in political theater.”
House Democrats have made it clear they see the charade for what it is as well.
“This is just a complete distraction and Speaker McCarthy knows it,” Rep. Pete Aguilar (D-CA) said during a Wednesday press conference.
On top of convincing skeptical moderates, McCarthy can use the vague impeachment inquiry language to appease far-right hardliners into playing along with the rest of the caucus as the fight over 2024 spending bill and appropriations bills picks up.
“This is a great way to give his far right wing a bone,” Gerhardt said. “It’s a way for McCarthy to appease them,” he said, adding the word game could help him avoid a far-right rebellion or a new hostage taking situation during negotiations over the upcoming spending bill.
The past couple of weeks, members of the House Freedom Caucus have been flexing their power via the appropriations process, forcing McCarthy to offer concessions to the hardliners — just like he did during the speaker’s race and during the fight over the debt ceiling — to get anything done, including passing a spending bill without risking a possible government shutdown.
The Freedom Caucus — who are currently fixated on undercutting the appropriations levels McCarthy and President Biden agreed on during the debt ceiling negotiations — have recently begun turning ordinarily appropriations committee meetings into battles over their party’s manufactured culture wars.
With that, they have been slowing the appropriations process down by writing and passing bills that are almost certainly dead on arrival in the Democrat-controlled Senate, risking a government shutdown as the October 1 deadline looms.
And while McCarthy makes a point of distinguishing between an impeachment inquiry and an impeachment to convince the moderates and appease the hardliners, the two procedures are not all that different.
“Impeachment inquiry is part of an impeachment,” Gerhardt told TPM. “Impeachment is just a general word for the process. And that process begins with an impeachment inquiry.”
House Republicans can choose not to bring an impeachment vote to the House floor at the end of their inquiry but, Griffin said, starting an inquiry is like pushing a rock down hill.
“It’s hard to stop,” Griffin said. “So some people are going to expect there’s no point in doing this unless we have an impeachment vote … if the inquiry just sputters to no conclusion — so they are unable to complete their process — or they actually get it on the floor and it’s rejected because some of the more moderate Republicans simply won’t go along with it that’d be taken to be a kind of a humiliation for the leader and in his party. So it’s hard for me to see [McCarthy] starting a serious inquiry, unless he is confident it’s going to go somewhere.”
The GOP caucus seems divided over the Speaker’s political wordsmithing.
Some hardliners like Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) are on board with McCarthy’s plan to work his caucus. Greene confirmed to reporters gathered outside of the Capitol Hill Club Wednesday morning that McCarthy’s use of the term “inquiry” has been intentional.
Greene’s close relationship with McCarthy recently got her booted from the Freedom Caucus, but as a newly-minted “free agent,” she parroted leadership’s talking points, saying that an inquiry is actually “different that an actual impeachment vote.”
“They give the House more power in our investigation and our subpoenas more power. And Speaker McCarthy just presented that to the conference,” she added as she came out of the caucus meeting.
But certainly not all far-right members have bought in. Freedom Caucus member Rep. Ken Buck (R-CO) criticized McCarthy on Wednesday, telling CNN that his remarks concerning the impeachment inquiry were a political move meant to speed up budget negotiations.
“What he’s doing is saying there’s a shiny object over there and we’re going to focus on that, we just need to get all these things done so we can focus on the shiny object,” Buck said in a CNN interview. “This is impeachment theater.”
No matter the Speaker’s underlying motivation for raising the prospect of impeachment during appropriations deadlines, the general consensus among Democrats and experts is that impeachment efforts will go nowhere.
“There’s literally no evidence to support an impeachment of Joe Biden. Republicans have yet to produce it,” Gerhardt told TPM. “It’s just a lot of speculation.”
And even if House Republicans were successful in convincing or forcing moderates within their caucus to go along, the effort would be dead on arrival in the Democrat-led Senate.
The President seems to agree.
Biden laughed off a question about the impeachment threat from McCarthy and House Republicans on Wednesday.