ANALYSIS — Speaker Mike Johnson is moving forward with a floor vote to formalize House Republicans’ impeachment probe of President Joe Biden, a move former Speaker Kevin McCarthy floated but never made.
The difference in approach begs a simple-but-complex question: What changed?
Johnson has signaled through words and actions that he and other House GOP leaders were confident they would have ample Republican votes on the floor to formally authorize the inquiry. He told reporters that “the House has no choice” but to approve an impeachment resolution and an accompanying measure that spells out subpoena powers for the three committees conducting the inquiry.
Aaron Cutler, a former senior aide to then-House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., said Friday that “with the presidential election less than a year away, the speaker is trying to put the impeachment inquiry on the most solid legal footing possible.”
House action is needed because the White House and Biden’s camp are collectively stonewalling, Johnson has argued.
“We must be very methodical and careful and follow the facts where they lead,” the speaker told Fox News on Sunday. “The impeachment inquiry is the next necessary step because the White House is now stonewalling our investigation.”
Johnson told reporters last week that “we have come to this sort of inflection point because … right now the White House is stonewalling that investigation. … They’re refusing to turn over key witnesses to allow them to testify, as they’ve been subpoenaed.”
McCarthy, a California Republican who plans to resign at the end of the year, made a similar argument earlier this year while never moving toward a floor vote.
What’s more, Johnson said the full House blessing the inquiry is necessary “so that when the subpoenas are challenged in court, we’ll be at the apex of our constitutional authority.”
Again, the former speaker made similar arguments.
One major aspect in House Republicans’ change of opinion is there is a new speaker. GOP members from all of the conference’s “five families” had grown frustrated with McCarthy, including moderates and the most conservative bloc. The moderates long saw any floor vote about the impeachment inquiry as a potential dagger to their 2024 reelection bids. And the conservatives contended McCarthy was flirting with such votes to “distract” them from this year’s spending and debt ceiling debate. The conservatives also just did not like McCarthy; but even Rep. Chip Roy, R-Texas, who has clashed at times with the new speaker, last week called him a “friend.”
“Two things are happening as a combo,” GOP strategist Brian Seitchik said. “And those things are moving folks who may have been privately during conference meetings against any impeachment votes but now are willing to vote to move the inquiry forward.”
The most recent change — but one Johnson could not have known about before setting up the vote — is the deepening legal problems for the president’s son, Hunter Biden, who was indicted last week on federal tax charges.
“The latest indictments against Hunter Biden are perceived as politically damaging and the depth of the case against him means there is more cover for members from swing districts,” Seitchik said.
The second change? “The strength of Donald Trump. His poll numbers show he’s stronger in the [2024 GOP] primary than he was nine months or six months — or even three months — ago,” he added. “Donald Trump wants, going into 2024, Joe Biden to be tarred by impeachment like he was twice.”
And with Trump running away with the nomination as voting is set to begin Jan. 15 with the Iowa caucuses, loyalty to Trump matters a lot. After all, moderate House GOP members from 17 districts they won in 2022 that Biden took two years earlier know there is still time for Trump and Johnson to find primary challengers from their political right, the strategist noted.
Rep. Byron Donalds, R-Fla., appeared Sunday on Fox News and previewed one of the pressure lines moderates likely will hear in the days before the vote.
“If you’re going to take a vote to expel George Santos based upon the Ethics Committee report, then you should easily be able to vote for an impeachment inquiry based upon the investigation that’s been brought forward by the Oversight Committee, the Judiciary Committee, and the Ways and Means Committee,” he said, referring to the Dec. 1 ouster of the indicted New York freshman Republican.
“Because, look, with all due respect, with everything that happened with George — and the [criminal] accusations are not good — but that pales in comparison to the accusations that have been leveled and the evidence that has come underneath those accusations against the Biden family.”
Johnson himself had a message for those moderate members when asked last week about whether they would be on board.
“All the moderates in our conference understand this is not a political decision. This is a legal decision. It’s a constitutional decision,” he said. “And whether someone is for or against impeachment is of no import right now. We have to continue our legal responsibility and that is solely what this vote is about.”
Notably, one of those 17 House Republicans from a so-called “Biden district” popped up Thursday on CNN sounding a lot like Johnson.
“Speaker McCarthy moved forward with an impeachment inquiry in the same manner that Nancy Pelosi did,” said Rep. Mike Lawler, R-N.Y., referring to the two times House Democrats impeached Trump. “The White House is stonewalling and refusing to cooperate. If a vote is put on the floor for an impeachment inquiry, I will support it because the American people deserve to know the answers to the question.
“Now, that does not mean that we’re moving forward with impeachment,” Lawler added. “And I think … that needs to be made very clear.”
Still, Lawler and the others from Biden-won districts have been getting some pressure. The Congressional Integrity Project, a nonprofit organization established to push back on House Republicans’ investigations into the Bidens, on Friday announced an ad campaign urging those moderates to “stop focusing on the evidence-free impeachment of President Biden and instead focus on the priorities that matter most to Americans across the country like access to health care and the cost of living.”
Although the speaker publicly has suggested he has enough moderates on board, his vote-counting operation has been lacking before. For instance, he has had to pull spending bills from the floor multiple times; and he could not even push through the rules for some of those. He backed saving Santos just hours before 105 of the 217 Republicans voting joined all but two Democrats in voting to expel him.
Cutler, the former Cantor aide, is betting Johnson has done his due diligence with his moderate bloc and would have the votes later this week on the floor: “I find it hard to believe that leadership would attempt to authorize an impeachment inquiry without first knowing that there are 218 votes in favor of doing so.”
Asked about what has changed since McCarthy floated a floor vote formalizing the inquiry, a Johnson aide said in an email: “The administration’s non-compliance with lawfully issued subpoenas must be addressed.”
One key House Republican deeply involved in the impeachment probe predicted last week the conference would get behind the measure.
“I think you are going to see an impeachment inquiry vote come out of the House next week. That’s the first step. Then once we get through that process, then Jim Jordan’s [Judiciary] Committee will be the committee that will press forward on impeachment,” Oversight and Accountability Chairman James R. Comer, R-Ky., told Fox Business.
“I think every member of Congress on the Republican side except one, realizes that this is the biggest political scandal of our lifetime at the highest levels,” he added, referring to impeachment critic Rep. Ken Buck, R-Colo. “And they think that we should finish this investigation.”