Kevin McCarthy Is a Hostage

The speaker’s abrupt impeachment probe against Biden is the latest sign that he’s still fighting for his job.

A black-and-white photo of Kevin McCarthy speaking at a podium
Chip Somodevilla / Getty

As Kevin McCarthy made his televised declaration earlier today that House Republicans were launching an impeachment inquiry into President Joe Biden, the House speaker stood outside his office in the Capitol, a trio of American flags arrayed behind to lend an air of dignity to such a grave announcement. But McCarthy looked and sounded like a hostage, and for good reason.

That the Republican majority would eventually try to impeach Biden was never really in doubt. The Atlantic’s Barton Gellman predicted as much nearly a year ago, even before the GOP narrowly ousted Democrats from control in the House. McCarthy characterized the move as “a logistical next step” in the party’s investigation into Biden’s involvement with his son Hunter’s business dealings, which has thus far yielded no evidence of presidential corruption. But intentionally or not, the speaker’s words underscored the inevitability of this effort, which is as much about exacting revenge on behalf of the twice-impeached former President Donald Trump as it is about prosecuting Biden’s alleged misdeeds.

From the moment that McCarthy won the speakership on the 15th vote, his grip on the gavel has seemed shaky at best. The full list of concessions he made to Republican holdouts to secure the job remains unclear and may be forcing his hand in hidden ways nine months later. The most important of those compromises, however, did become public: At any time, a single member of the House can force a vote that could remove McCarthy as speaker.

The high point of McCarthy’s year came in June, when the House overwhelmingly approved—although with notably more votes from Democrats than Republicans—the debt-ceiling deal he struck with Biden. That legislation successfully prevented a first-ever U.S. default, but blowback from conservatives has forced McCarthy to renege on the spending provisions of the agreement. House Republicans are advancing bills that appropriate far less money than the June budget accord called for, setting up a clash with both the Democratic-controlled Senate and the White House that could result in a government shutdown either when the fiscal year ends on September 30 or later in the fall.

GOP hard-liners have also backed McCarthy into a corner on impeachment. The speaker has tried his best to walk a careful line on the question, knowing that to keep his job, he could neither rush into a bid to topple the president nor rule one out. Trump allies like Representatives Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia and Matt Gaetz of Florida have been angling to impeach Biden virtually from the moment he took office, while GOP lawmakers who represent districts that Biden won—and on whom the GOP’s thin House advantage depends—have been much cooler to the idea. McCarthy has had to satisfy both wings of the party, but he has been unable to do so without undermining his own position.

Less than two weeks ago, McCarthy said that he would launch a formal impeachment only with a vote of the full House. As the minority leader in 2019, McCarthy had castigated then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi for initiating an impeachment probe against Trump before holding a vote on the matter. “If we move forward with an impeachment inquiry,” McCarthy told the conservative publication Breitbart, “it would occur through a vote on the floor of the people’s House and not through a declaration by one person.” By this morning, the speaker had reversed himself, unilaterally announcing an impeachment inquiry just as Pelosi did four years ago this month. (McCarthy made no mention of a House vote during his speech, and when reporters in the Capitol asked about it, a spokesperson for the speaker told them no vote was planned.)

The reason for McCarthy’s flip is plain: He doesn’t have the support to open an impeachment inquiry through a floor vote, but to avoid a revolt from hard-liners, he had to announce an inquiry anyway. Substantively, his declaration means little. House Republicans have more or less been conducting an impeachment inquiry for months; formalizing the process simply means they may be able to subpoena more documents from the president. The effort is all but certain to fail. Whether it will yield enough Republican votes to impeach Biden in the House is far from clear. That it will secure the two-thirds needed to convict the president in the Senate is almost unthinkable.

McCarthy’s announcement won praise from only some of his Republican critics. Barely an hour later, Gaetz delivered a preplanned speech on the House floor decrying the speaker’s first eight months in office and vowing to force a vote on his removal if McCarthy caves to Democrats during this month’s shutdown fight. He called the speaker’s impeachment announcement “a baby step” delivered in a “rushed and somewhat rattled performance.” A longtime foe of McCarthy’s, Gaetz was one of the final holdouts in the Californian’s bid to become speaker in January, when he forced McCarthy to grovel before acquiescing on the final ballot. “I am here to serve notice, Mr. Speaker,” Gaetz said this afternoon, “that you are out of compliance with the agreement that allowed you to assume this role.”

If McCarthy has become a hostage of the House hard-liners, then Gaetz is his captor—or, more likely, one of several. Publicly, the speaker has dared Gaetz to try to overthrow him, but caving on impeachment and forsaking a floor vote suggests that he might not be so confident.

The speaker is as isolated in Washington as he is in his own conference. Senate Republicans have shown no interest in the House’s impeachment push, and they are far more willing to adhere to the terms of the budget deal that McCarthy struck with Biden and avert a government shutdown. Perhaps McCarthy believed that by moving on impeachment now he could buy some room to maneuver on the spending fights to come. But the impetus behind today’s announcement is more likely the same one that has driven nearly all of his decisions as speaker—the desire to wake up tomorrow morning and hold the job at least one more day.

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