The politics of McCarthy's impeachment inquiry into Biden



This is a big month in Congress and for House speaker Kevin McCarthy. McCarthy had to go through 15 votes to become speaker at the start of the year. Since he was elected speaker, McCarthy has been tasked with keeping a caucus that includes right-wing populists who are eager to push Trumpism. They also include moderates from states that lean Democratic and helped Republicans win the majority. McCarthy is also trying to avoid repeated threats against his job. McCarthy, along with other congressional leaders, may have to deal with a funding deadline for the government and the efforts of hard-liners within his own party to force the shutdown in the coming week. So it was a bit surprising when McCarthy added another big element to the mix.


KEVIN MCCARTHY: You know, the months that we were gone and the weeks, House Republicans have uncovered serious and credible allegations into President Biden’s conduct. Taken together, these allegations paint a picture of a culture of corruption.

DETROW: It is important to point out that House Republicans have not singled out a clear impeachable action as they’ve probed the business dealings of Biden’s criminally charged son, Hunter, among other things. But still, McCarthy announced…


MCCARTHY: I am directing our House committee to open a formal impeachment inquiry into President Joe Biden.

DETROW: If McCarthy’s calculation was that this might get conservatives pushing impeachment to back down, he was wrong. Just after the announcement, Florida Republican Representative Matt Gaetz took to the House floor.


MATT GAETZ: I rise today to serve notice. You are not in compliance with the agreement which allowed you to take on this role. The path forward for the House of Representatives is to either bring you into immediate, total compliance or remove you pursuant to a motion to vacate the chair.

DETROW: In our Sunday cover story, Speaker Kevin McCarthy is struggling to unite Trump-era Republicans around a plan to avert a government shutdown at the end of the month, and he’s trying to protect his job as speaker. What will he do now, and how will this all play out? Deirdre, NPR’s congressional reporter joins us to discuss this and better understand McCarthy’s motivations. Hey, Deirdre.


DETROW: So to be fair to McCarthy, he has – so far, at least – found his way through these various situations, right? It took him 15 attempts to become speaker. He is the speaker of both houses. He did succeed. So how is that dynamic that keeps replaying itself playing out in this moment?

WALSH: He still has this razor-thin margin. He’s doing his best to keep the members of his party united. McCarthy’s other characteristic is that he rose through the ranks as a politician, and not as a legislator. He doesn’t have much experience in navigating large bipartisan negotiations. He did gain some ground with President Biden on the debt ceiling, but he let his lieutenants handle that. They handled the substance. It’s a problem that the debt ceiling deal has sort of come home to roost, because he agreed to spending levels with the president. The problem is that conservatives who did not vote for the deal do not want to support it. This is the crux of this current spending battle. Matt Gaetz, a conservative from Florida, has threatened to remove the speaker. As we learned during the election of the speaker, the rule is only one member has to say, I raise a motion to vacate the chair, which, essentially, is a vote of confidence on the speaker…


WALSH: …And he’s threatening to do that. The situation escalated in the closed-door session. I mean, Kevin McCarthy basically said to Matt Gaetz, bring it on.


MCCARTHY: Most people get to speaker on the first round. It took me 15. It took me 15 minutes. So, I won’t give up a fight. I knew it would be difficult to change Washington. I knew that people would fight and try to gain leverage. I will continue to focus on doing what is right for the American people. You know what else? If it takes a fight, we’ll have a fight.

DETROW: Deirdre, you could speak from experience. Is taking 15 rounds to get your job a particularly Irish thing?

WALSH: I didn’t know that, as an Irish-American.


WALSH: But McCarthy frequently talks about that…


WALSH: …His Irish stick-to-it-iveness is part of his character, and that’s part of who he is. He’s ready to go. Just a quick note, you mentioned that razor-thin majority. You mentioned the hard-righters in his caucus. There are also moderate members in his caucus who could lose their seats and hand the House to Democrats the next year. How can he make both sides happy during impeachment proceedings? This seems impossible to me.

WALSH : Right. Right now, I think he is walking a line by announcing his own impeachment investigation and not voting to start an impeachment. Just 10 days ago he said he would never do an impeachment without a House Vote. He realized it would put the members in a difficult position. He reversed his decision and is now taking the heat for flip-flopping, by not forcing the members to be on record. The ones I have spoken to in these swing districts basically say, “I’m fine with an investigation.” Let’s see what the facts reveal. They don’t need to vote right now. So they sort of see it as something that’s happening in the future.

DETROW: So let’s talk more about today’s political problem, and that is this looming government shutdown possibility. McCarthy did everything in his power to prevent this from happening, right? He worked out a budget with President Biden last year during the standoff over debt limits. He didn’t really want to be there. Why is he there?

WALSH : It’s because the same group of about 20 hard-line conservative House Members who reluctantly elected McCarthy as Speaker eventually, but hated that debt deal. They saw it as part of a deal to elect McCarthy to commit to cutting spending. They say he is not fulfilling the promises that he made to get the votes for him to become speaker. It’s hard to see how he can get out of it with such a razor-thin majority. He has to get Republican votes for any bill that he brings up. Chip Roy, a conservative from Texas, is currently negotiating with Speaker Boehner. He says, “Look, a shutdown is not a major problem.” They want us to fight. He was Ted Cruz’s chief staffer during the 2013 shutdown. He thought it was a good thing for Republicans. And here’s Chip Roy talking about that.


CHIP ROY: Because my former boss, Senator Cruz, went down and fought Obamacare, and the American people saw that fight. They’re seeing us fighting for them right now.

WALSH: And I think that as long as you have that group who feel like a shutdown isn’t a big deal, McCarthy faces this internal battle that he’s going to eventually have to go to Democrats for the votes.

DETROW: So, I mean, I guess the question is, how serious is the risk to McCarthy’s job? We’ve been discussing it for almost a year. We have said that he is still the speaker. How real is this versus posturing?

WALSH: I think it’s very real.

DETROW: OK. How real is this versus posturing?

WALSH: I think it’s very real.


WALSH: Even strong allies of Kevin McCarthy believe that they’re going to have to vote on a motion to oust him before the end of this year. Many of them just want it to be over. They admit that they aren’t sure what will happen. What do the Democrats decide to do? Remember that they need 218 votes to pass it. Even if McCarthy’s supporters vote against him, some Democrats may still cross over and remove him. What happens then? What chaos will ensue? It’s a question that I don’t know the answer to. I think we’ll see this vote at some point.

DETROW: That was NPR’s congressional correspondent Deirdre Walsh. McCarthy is not the only person to have faced a similar situation. Former House Speaker Newt Giingrich has been in McCarthy’s shoes. Gingrich told us that McCarthy was right to call out the lawmakers who were threatening him. I think McCarthy will be the next speaker. There are some people who hate McCarthy. That’s just part of the business.

DETROW: So on the two big things facing McCarthy right now – we could take them one at a time. What do you consider the greatest challenges? Let’s begin with impeachment, because you have two caucus factions that are diametrically opposite, at least for the time being. It’s not mathematically possible for me to keep both factions happy. There are the Freedom Caucus types that we so often talk about and there are the moderates, who will be in greater danger next year, but don’t want a vote. What would you say?

GINGRICH : Right. I would do what McCarthy did, and move from impeachment to an investigation, rather than to impeachment. And then, I’d look at the evidence. Either one of two things can happen. There’ll be nothing, just a bunch rumors. It’ll disappear. It will disappear. Or it’ll turn out that the scale of corruption is so clear, so vast, in a way that you just can’t ignore, in which case, people back home will tell the moderates, yeah, you have no choice.

DETROW: Mr. Speaker, you have some experience with impeachment yourself.


DETROW: You moved forward with an impeachment case. The shorthand decades later is that it caused more damage to your party in the short-term than the person you were impeaching. What did you learn from that experience that you think McCarthy should do differently or the same as he kind of starts to look into this?

GINGRICH: I learned that going to an inquiry is a really useful start. I learned that impeachment, in the end is a political process. Lincoln said that if the American people were with you, then anything was possible. It is impossible to achieve anything without popular sentiment. I still feel strongly that Bill Clinton committed an offense. My advice would be to go slowly. You must communicate with Americans, who will ultimately tell you what to do. How do you think this funding stalemate will play out in the coming weeks? How likely do you think a shutdown is, given the dynamics in McCarthy’s caucus and everything else?

GINGRICH: Well, first of all, I am the one person that you’ll talk to who will tell you that the shutdowns did not hurt the Republicans…


GINGRICH: …At all, period. In a real fight to get a balanced budget, we shut down the government twice. Once for 27 days. We became the first House Republican majority to be re-elected since 1928. Tell me what it did to us. McCarthy needs to do a couple of things. He has to convince the hardliners that there’s a way they can go with him. Or he needs Republican votes. That is what he achieved on the debt limit. This gave him a strong position. He won, and he outmanoeuvred both Biden and the Senate. If he doesn’t succeed, he may have to make a deal with Democrats sooner or later, which would upset a part of the conference. DETROW: Former House Speaker Newt gingrich. Thank you for being with us. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

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