Skip to content

McCarthy’s impeachment surprise could gobble up limited floor time

McCarthy might need another trick play as conservative Rep. Ken Buck balks

Speaker Kevin McCarthy conducts a news conference after the House passed its 2024 National Defense Authorization Act on July 14.
Speaker Kevin McCarthy conducts a news conference after the House passed its 2024 National Defense Authorization Act on July 14. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Speaker Kevin McCarthy is becoming the Patrick Mahomes of the House of Representatives, buying time while trying to keep the legislative — and political — chains moving.

His latest scramble and shovel pass, à la the Kansas City Chiefs star quarterback, came as his conference’s most conservative faction continued to raise big questions about what the House might be able to accomplish this fall — including averting a government shutdown. But some lawmakers worry all the drama might still produce a subpar outcome, even if the federal lights remain on.

“I have been worried for quite a while about a [continuing resolution] at the end of the calendar year. I’m not worried about a shutdown,” Senate Budget Committee member Tim Kaine, D-Va., said this week. “We got a bill passed during the last shutdown that guarantees every federal employee gets paid in a shutdown.

“So why would we shut the doors to pay people and tell them not to come to work, and not to help their fellow citizens? I think that would be malpractice of the highest degree,” Kaine said. “So I don’t think we’re going to have a shutdown. But I do think the negotiation to get past a CR and into a real appropriations bill by year’s end, I think that will be very challenging.”

Can McCarthy juggle those spending talks and a contentious impeachment inquiry, much as Mahomes handles oncoming defenders (read: conservatives) while searching for an open receiver (read: a legislative strategy)?

Fans of the new Netflix docuseries “Quarterback” have learned what appear on Sundays (and some Thursday nights) to be some improvisational plays by Mahomes are anything but. The behind-the-scenes documentary features footage of Mahomes and his teammates, egged on by head coach Andy Reid, practicing trick plays.

In fact, Mahomes reveals he spent an entire offseason conjuring up a single special play where he goes in motion, returns for the snap, rolls out to his right to buy time with opposing defenders, then zips the ball to a running back in the middle of the field with a sidearm shovel pass. It was good enough for a touchdown in at least one game.

McCarthy, who some doubted would last until the August recess as speaker after his protracted gavel fight with House conservatives, is showing a trend of keeping plays alive, Mahomes-style.

McCarthy dropped a bit of a bombshell during a Monday night appearance on Fox News’ popular “Hannity” commentary and interview program. He threw open the door to an impeachment investigation into President Joe Biden’s and son Hunter Biden’s business dealings, including some of Hunter’s while Joe was vice president.

“When Biden was running for office, he told the public he has never talked about business. He said his family has never received a dollar from China, which we prove is not true,” the speaker told Fox personality Sean Hannity — even though members of the House Oversight and Judiciary committees have not connected any of the dots they have splashed on the wall of public opinion.

“We’ve only followed where the information has taken us. But Hannity, this is rising to the level of impeachment inquiry, which provides Congress the strongest power to get the rest of the knowledge and information needed,” McCarthy said.

He also questioned why, in the GOP view, a Justice Department investigation that resulted in a plea arrangement with Hunter Biden over tax crimes was too slow and resulted in light charges. But, wait, there’s more. Like other Republican lawmakers, McCarthy said DOJ probes into all things Trump and other conservatives amount to a Biden-led abuse of power.

“Because this president has also used something we have not seen since Richard Nixon: used the weaponization of government to benefit his family and deny Congress the ability to have the oversight,” he said. Biden, for his part, denies being involved in his son’s business dealings and contends he is letting Attorney General Merrick B. Garland run DOJ as he sees fit, a claim the GOP rejects.

“I believe we will follow this all the way to the end and this is going to rise to an impeachment inquiry,” McCarthy said of House Republicans, “the way the Constitution tells us to do this, and we have to get the answers to these questions.”

Buying time

For months, McCarthy had stopped short of suggesting moving toward impeachment proceedings against Biden. His pivot in that direction shows his emerging strategy for dealing with House Freedom Caucus members and other far-right members of his raucous and oft-divided conference.

McCarthy has spent much of his speakership allowing the conservatives to gripe about this and that while pushing for everything from rules changes to process overhauls to committee assignments to earmarks to lower spending levels. Impeaching Biden and several Cabinet officials also belongs on that list.

The speaker typically buys time by distancing himself from these demands, then lightly entertaining them in public and ultimately bowing to the conservatives’ whims. But while the Mahomes-crafted shovel pass resulted in six points, the impeachment pitch to conservatives opens McCarthy up for a potentially costly political turnover.

One, the pro-impeachment caucus lacks the necessary simple majority of votes to pass such articles, with moderate GOP members already voicing opposition. Two, a failed impeachment push would eat up limited floor time, giving Democrats 2024 campaign-trail ammunition to argue it was all a political endeavor — rather than passing legislation to better voters’ daily lives.

Even with only 40 legislative days remaining on the planned House 2023 calendar and polls showing voters still deeply concerned about economic headwinds, some Republicans who have sometimes criticized McCarthy say taking up floor time for an impeachment inquiry might be wise.

“I think there will be more and more evidence that shows up about the Hunter Biden problem,” Senate Judiciary ranking member Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said Wednesday. “I think it’s going to be a lot worse than people realized.”

Graham then, unprompted during a brief interview, highlighted McCarthy’s potential gambit. “If they can prove that [then-Vice] President Biden actually did know about [Hunter’s] business dealings, that’s a game-changer,” he said, referring to House Republicans.

But have they, Mr. Ranking Member? “We’ll see,” Graham replied.

A retired Air Force and Air Force Reserve lawyer, Graham knows some corroborated evidence would be key to proving House Republicans’ many accusations about the Bidens. But as a former House member who was an impeachment manager when the House GOP tried to oust President Bill Clinton, he also knows impeachment is a political and not a criminal endeavor. That’s something to consider for those who doubt McCarthy would burn floor time later this year.

Another trick play?

Another attorney-turned-senator, Republican John Kennedy of Louisiana, this week laid out another reason why McCarthy and House Republicans might go ahead with a calendar-burning impeachment process.

“My point is I think that weak evidence cheapened the impeachment process,” Kennedy said, referring to the evidence House Democrats presented in the two Senate impeachment trials against former President Donald Trump, who was acquitted both times. “Some people disagree with me. They say, ‘It was wrong to try and impeach President Trump and this is payback.’

“I don’t want to make that same mistake,” Kennedy added.

It’s McCarthy’s ultimate decision. His first year as speaker suggests more buying time before yet another trick play that ultimately assuages conservatives.

One conservative said McCarthy is running a new one, against them, by using impeachment as a lure to get their consensus on annual appropriations bills.

“This is impeachment theater,” Rep. Ken Buck, R-Colo., told CNN. “What he is doing is he is saying there is a shiny object over here, and we’re really going to focus on that. We just need to get all these things done so that we can focus on this shiny object. Most of us are concerned about spending. It is an existential threat to this country.”

Conservatives don’t appear to be biting on McCarthy’s impeachment inquiry pump fake — they blocked floor work on an agriculture spending bill, a measure that typically passes rather easily. That prompted GOP leaders to cancel planned Friday votes and begin August recess a day early.

Sounds like the speaker might need to buy some more time with yet another trick play.

Editor-at-Large John T. Bennett, a former White House correspondent, writes a weekly column for Roll Call, parts of which often first appear in the subscription-based CQ Senate newsletter.

Recent Stories

Stopgap funding bills hung up in both chambers

Who are the House Republicans who opposed the stopgap budget bill?

Taking it to the limit — Congressional Hits and Misses

Feinstein broke glass ceilings during decades of Judiciary Committee work

Colleagues honor Feinstein as death leaves Senate vacancy

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a life in photos