House GOP traps itself in impeachment box

All that means a vote to recommend booting the president from office would be highly risky.

Republicans stress they’ve only endorsed giving their investigations more legal teeth, as they’ve struggled to find clear evidence linking decisions made by Joe Biden to his family’s business deals. And that’s the bar some centrists have emphasized that investigators need to clear in order to earn enough votes.

Every presidential impeachment inquiry in modern times has led to a formal impeachment vote — except in the case of Richard Nixon, who resigned from office before that could happen. A GOP failure to follow suit this time would likely mean severe backlash from the right flank, former President Donald Trump and an increasingly restless base who, some Republicans acknowledge, treat impeachment as a fait accompli.

“I think there’s an expectation in the base now: ‘You voted for impeachment.’ … They look at this as an impeachment vote,” Rep. Ken Buck (R-Colo.) said of the inquiry, which he ultimately voted to formalize despite criticizing it just days before. He said he hadn’t changed his thinking on impeachment itself.

Leadership has a short window to find an off-ramp that would please both the impeachment skeptics and supporters within their own ranks. Investigators want to decide as early as late January on drafting impeachment articles, but whether the conference has the votes to recommend booting the president will likely factor into leaders’ decision to go further down that path.

There are a few remaining steps in between that investigators hope might shore up more votes. That includes a potential court fight, an ongoing standoff against Hunter Biden — whom Oversight Chair James Comer (R-Ky.) and Judiciary Chair Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) have threatened to hold in contempt of Congress — lingering document requests, and a report on their findings.

“There’ll be some kind of report that I assume would come from Oversight and then, you know, the conference will make a decision on whether there’s actual articles,” Jordan said when asked who will make the call to take that step.

Jordan added that he believes the case they’ve put together so far is “compelling,” and even Speaker Mike Johnson has hinted that he believes Joe Biden committed impeachable offenses. But behind closed doors, leaders have emphasized they don’t want to rush into a preconceived endgame. And skepticism within the conference extends well beyond just battleground district Republicans.

Impeachment and formalizing an inquiry are “not the same thing. An inquiry is, they’ll do the work. … I think anybody could vote from any political stripe to have an inquiry, to ask questions. It doesn’t compel you to do anything about an actual impeachment vote,” said Rep. Doug LaMalfa (R-Calif.), who hails from a solidly Republican district.

Rep. Dusty Johnson (R-S.D.), who chairs the business-oriented Main Street Caucus, said “there’s not evidence to impeach” at this point. Meanwhile, Rep. David Joyce (R-Ohio), asked if Republicans were now on a slippery slope to impeachment, countered that they could instead determine that “there is nothing there for impeachment.”

“We’re a long way from impeachment,” said Joyce, who oversees the moderate Republican Governance Group.

That doubt underscores just how much work leadership and GOP investigators have to do if they want to align their fragile majority behind a historic step like impeachment. Republicans haven’t settled on what specific charges they would pursue against Joe Biden, but they’ve focused on obstruction and bribery allegations.

Both would come with potential tripwires: The White House is already pushing back against the former, and getting their colleagues comfortable with the latter would likely require irrefutable evidence — a possibly unattainable standard.

Investigators have spent months conducting a sweeping investigation that has largely focused on the business deals of Hunter Biden and other family members. They’ve probed allegations of political interference in the yearslong federal investigation into the president’s son and are also looking at Joe Biden’s handling of classified documents, which is separately being handled by a special counsel.

There’s a common theme in all of those probes: Despite being a major focal point of the GOP’s first year in the majority, all have struggled to regularly gain traction outside of conservative media.

While House Republicans have poked holes in some of Joe Biden’s statements and turned up credible accusations that Hunter Biden used his father’s name to up his business credentials, there’s no evidence thus far that Joe Biden himself used his political office to benefit his family.

Republicans are well aware that continuing to investigate deeper into an election year comes with its own risks. They’re trying to hold onto a slim majority that runs through areas that Biden won in 2020. Democrats are already hammering GOP lawmakers who backed the intermediate step, since many of those same members seem skeptical investigators will accumulate enough evidence to convince them to impeach.

And some of those swing-district Republicans are already trying to temper voters’ expectations, making a distinction between supporting a formal inquiry and supporting impeachment.

The inquiry vote “doesn’t mean we have high crimes or misdemeanors. We may not ever,” Rep. Don Bacon (R-Neb.) said, while acknowledging that “some” GOP voters might now expect it.

While the party’s right flank has floated dragging out the investigation well into 2024, using it as a cudgel against Biden in the general election, other Republicans are warning that would expose their party to political attacks.

And, they added, the GOP effort against Biden could also inadvertently boost him, given that Trump saw a polling upswing during and immediately after his first impeachment.

“We live in a binary political world,” said Rep. Kelly Armstrong (R-N.D.), noting that “Trump’s highest approval rating” came right after House Democrats first recommended booting him.

Daniella Diaz and Katherine Tully-McManus contributed.

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