Sep 12, 2023 - Politics & Policy

McCarthy vs. himself

Photo: Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP via Getty Images

Eleven days ago, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) pledged he would only launch an impeachment inquiry into President Biden with a vote on the House floor — "not through a declaration by one person."

On Tuesday, McCarthy stood alone at a lectern and declared that three GOP-led committees would begin a formal impeachment inquiry at his sole direction.

Why it matters: For most observers, it's a U-turn of epic proportions. For McCarthy, it's an uncomfortable flip-flop that protects vulnerable Republicans from a difficult vote while allowing him to fight another day as speaker.

State of play: The August recess revealed that Republicans do not have the votes to authorize an impeachment inquiry, with a handful of GOP lawmakers expressing skepticism about the evidence against Biden uncovered so far.

  • McCarthy clearly calculated the claims of hypocrisy he now faces would be more tolerable than the growing pressure from the GOP's impeachment-hungry hardliners, who could threaten to oust him.
  • By moving existing Republican investigations under the umbrella of an impeachment inquiry, McCarthy is betting he can placate the right and focus on a more immediate crisis: averting a government shutdown at the end of the month.
Screenshot of McCarthy's tweet during the 2019 impeachment debate.

Flashback: Former Speaker Nancy Pelosi's (D-Calif.) decision to open an impeachment inquiry without a vote was at the center of House Republicans' defense of former President Trump in 2019.

  • The Trump administration refused to cooperate with what it called an "illegitimate" investigation. The Justice Department even issued an opinion finding that the House's subpoenas did not carry the extra weight bestowed by an impeachment inquiry.
  • That could quickly become a problem for today's Republicans: As recently as Sunday, House Judiciary Chair Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) stressed that a formal resolution is what allows the courts to "understand that the House is engaged in a fundamental constitutional activity."

What they're saying: Caught in the hallway by reporters, McCarthy blamed Pelosi for changing the precedent and said he warned her about the consequences at the time.

  • McCarthy did not explain why his position changed in the past 11 days, but the Biden campaign quickly seized on his U-turn to emphasize he did not have the support of his entire GOP conference.
  • Given that House Democrats eventually held a floor vote for the public phase of their inquiry in October 2019, today's GOP holdouts are likely to face a significant pressure campaign in the coming weeks.

The bottom line: McCarthy has governed by the seat of his pants for much of his tenure. This latest chapter may be his boldest gamble yet.

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