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House mis-calls

Even Kevin McCarthy Knows Impeaching Biden Is a Bad Idea

Republican hard-liners are endangering their swing-district colleagues.

Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images

This should have been an easy week for House Republicans. Uninterested in governing, the party has mostly used its slim majority to focus on messaging bills aimed at its most dogmatic supporters. In recent weeks, there have been bills to block an imaginary nationwide ban on gas stoves, moves to block the administrative state from functioning, and efforts to censure Adam Schiff—the kind of stuff that leads the evening shows on Fox News. This week, House Republicans didn’t even have to pass messaging bills. Hunter Biden’s plea deal and special counsel John Durham’s testimony before the House Judiciary Committee gave them plenty to mug for the cameras about—even if the former was standard practice and Durham’s testimony revealed he didn’t actually know what he was talking about. And yet they couldn’t even get that right.

Despite having spent much of the week reciting “Biden crime family” talking points and questioning the Biden presidency’s legitimacy, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy has been working behind the scenes to tamp down an effort from two of his most radical members—Lauren Boebert and Marjorie Taylor Greene—to impeach the chief executive. Boebert accuses the president of “dereliction of duty” relating to his handling of the southern border; Greene, meanwhile, wants to impeach not only Biden but also Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, FBI Director Christopher Wray, Attorney General Merrick Garland, and Matthew Graves, the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia. McCarthy and other members of his leadership team want no part of these efforts, arguing (correctly) that they’re vastly premature—without also saying that they’re doomed.

And yet, McCarthy’s effort has seemingly failed: The House will vote on Boebert’s  impeachment resolution as early as Thursday, according to Majority Leader Steve Scalise. It’s all the latest sign that McCarthy’s hold on his caucus is slipping—and that Republicans remain in disarray.

McCarthy has spent most of his time with the speaker’s gavel putting out fires from his right flank. Much of this is his own fault. To lead the House chamber, McCarthy struck a deal with the devil (or a score of them), a Faustian bargain that is essentially a power-sharing agreement with the Republican Party’s most radical House members. Given his slim majority, the fact that Democrats narrowly control the Senate, and that Joe Biden sits in the White House, this is not necessarily a recipe for disaster: After all, many members of the GOP House are just there to push symbolic legislation that will get them airtime on right-wing cable news—as long as McCarthy placates them, he’s alright.

McCarthy’s problem is that his rebels aren’t acting in good faith—and that they’re still furious about being cut out of a budget deal the speaker reached with Biden late last month. (McCarthy had no choice but to sideline them if the country was to avoid default.) That resulted in a weeklong tantrum in which Freedom Caucus members held the floor and stopped Congress from functioning—while constantly reminding McCarthy that they held his fate in their hands. That skirmish ended with a truce and a threat that they would very happily do it again.

A week later, McCarthy faces a similar headache from Boebert and Greene. The former made a procedural move forcing the impeachment vote. Greene, one of McCarthy’s most surprising allies, is less bombastic but arguably more dangerous—impeaching Biden and several administration officials may very well be the price of her loyalty.

McCarthy spent Wednesday trying to stop his hard-liners from rushing into impeachment. In a tense meeting, he urged his caucus members to restrain themselves. The speaker “thinks we should go through committee,” a GOP lawmaker told NBC. “When we treat it frivolously, it strengthens Biden and weakens us.” A second source told the network: “The speaker’s message was that we need to follow regular order and let the committees do their work.” McCarthy himself made a similar case publicly to reporters later that day. “It’s very serious,” he said of impeachment. “That’s why I don’t want to do anything that harms the investigation we’re going through right now.”

McCarthy is, I suppose, correct on the merits (which is saying something for him), even if he is also misleading. His problem is that his members—and their constituents—very much want to impeach the president even though they have no grounds to do so. Despite bombastic accusations of bribery, corruption, and all manner of malfeasance, investigations of Biden and his administration have turned up nothing concrete or even especially suspicious—and certainly nothing that links the president to a crime. The GOP messaging apparatus—the one that was meant to kick into gear over Hunter Biden’s supposedly light treatment and John Durham’s flimsy investigation into the Justice Department’s own investigation into Russian interference during the 2016 election—is built around pushing these smears and treating them as facts. But impeachment would not only fail, it would harm that case by exposing just how flimsy their argument is.

Nancy Pelosi faced similar pressure to impeach Donald Trump throughout his presidency but repeatedly batted down similar efforts. Pelosi did so because she knew that voting on doomed articles of impeachment would put vulnerable House Democrats in an untenable position. McCarthy is in a similar predicament. Democrats have targeted 18 Republicans who represent districts Biden won in 2020. But instead of protecting them, as Pelosi did, McCarthy has repeatedly thrown them to the wolves in order to placate his right flank. These 18 Republicans will be forced either to vote for a silly and pointless effort to impeach Biden—which could well cost them when voters go to the polls next year—or anger party hard-liners and risk primary opponents.

It is vanishingly unlikely that either Boebert’s or Greene’s efforts will succeed. But they are the latest sign that, with the 2024 election rapidly approaching, the House GOP remains in total chaos. And Kevin McCarthy is holding it together by a thread.