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Only Tuesday

Senate Republicans Haven’t Caught Impeachment Mania—Yet

Conservatives in the upper chamber aren’t quite as rabid about ousting the president as their counterparts in the House, but it could become their problem soon enough.

Al Drago/Bloomberg/Getty Images
House Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s impeachment move was met with mixed reaction among Republican senators.

The political differences between the Senate and the House of Representatives appear particularly stark this week, as one chamber presses forward on bipartisan legislation to keep the government funded and the other embarks on an impeachment inquiry into President Joe Biden spurred by the Republican Party’s conservative flank.

Tuesday was a tale of two chambers: On one side, the Senate teed up a procedural vote on a package of three spending bills that passed in a bipartisan fashion, 85–12: the first step toward avoiding a government shutdown. Funding for the federal government expires at month’s end, and the House, Senate, and White House will have to negotiate a funding agreement for fiscal year 2024. That’s unlikely to happen in the coming weeks, and so lawmakers see a stopgap bill to temporarily keep the government open while a final deal is cut as the only lifeline to avoid a shutdown.

Meanwhile, on the House side, Speaker Kevin McCarthy announced that he would direct the chairs of three committees to carry out an impeachment inquiry into Biden and his family. To this point, months of House investigations have turned up no evidence of wrongdoing, but McCarthy and conservatives in the House believe an impeachment process may root out the definitive proof of misdeeds that has thus far eluded them.

McCarthy’s announcement contradicted his previous vow that he would not open an inquiry without a full vote by the House, a tacit acknowledgment that he lacked the votes to do so. Several moderate Republicans in the House have expressed skepticism about opening an inquiry, but McCarthy has faced pressure from his right flank to take that step.

Some Senate Republicans were leery of the move. “I don’t know what it’s based on,” Senator Shelley Moore Capito told reporters. “I have no idea what they’re talking about. I don’t want to see impeachment being used as an everyday instrument. I don’t think that’s what it’s intended for.” Senator Lisa Murkowski called the effort “premature” and worried that the bar for launching an impeachment would get “lower and lower every year.” Biden becomes the third of the last five presidents to face impeachment, after only two underwent the process in the previous two centuries.

Other Republican senators were more circumspect in their reaction to McCarthy’s move. GOP Senator Thom Tillis argued that House Republicans could not traverse the trail congressional Democrats blazed in their two impeachment proceedings, which he viewed as “accelerated” and partisan. So Tillis argued that House Republicans needed to “do the homework.” He raised concerns about bypassing a House vote to launch an inquiry. “We’ll have to decide if this is a potential repeat of what I think was two political impeachments,” he said. “I hope they prove me wrong.” He worried that impeachment, which has traditionally been a grave matter, is becoming the U.S. equivalent of a “vote of no confidence.”

“The Democrats tried to weaponize impeachment,” said Senator John Thune, the second-highest-ranking Republican in the Senate. “I just hate to see where this becomes the method of every time there is a change in administrations, of trying to throw somebody out of office.”

Other Republican senators were willing to cut their colleagues in the House some slack. “An inquiry is an inquiry,” said Senator Chuck Grassley, who has been working with House Oversight Committee Chair James Comer in investigating Biden and his son. “It’s not an impeachment [vote]. And it seems to me that it would open up an avenue to get a lot of the information that we feel we’ve been stonewalled.”

Senator Kevin Cramer, who was an ally of McCarthy when he served in the House, said that it was “the appropriate time for the obvious next step.” He added: “The speaker has been patient and deliberative.”

Still, Senate Republicans argued that the House needed to be transparent and thorough in its investigation. Senator Josh Hawley called the inquiry “the right decision” but said the fact-finding effort should be open to the public.

“Should the president be actually impeached?” Hawley said. “I don’t know the answer to that. Are the allegations serious? Yeah, they are. So, let’s get the facts, and have it done in public.”

House Republicans have an exceedingly narrow majority, and McCarthy is under near-constant threat that displeasing conservative members could lead them to launch an effort to oust him from the speakership. But maintaining his position isn’t McCarthy’s only concern, given the looming threat of a government shutdown.

Conservative Republicans seem to range from blasé to eager about the prospect of shutting the government down and have made their support for any government funding measure contingent on several conditions—including, for some, launching an impeachment inquiry into Biden.

Republican Senator Mike Rounds indicated that he believed opening an inquiry could help McCarthy keep Republicans in line on other critical issues, like government funding, the annual defense authorization bill, and the farm bill.

“It also gives him one more step in keeping folks with him in the process to get the other things done that the House needs to get done,” Rounds told reporters. “As long as he can keep a coalition together, the better off we are for getting something done long term that’s got to be done this year.”

It “wouldn’t surprise me,” Rounds said, if McCarthy launched the impeachment inquiry to help keep House Republicans together on appropriations issues. When a reporter asked if that suggested that this was not a legitimate inquiry, Rounds responded: “You’d have to ask him.”