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McCarthy Lacks the Votes For an Impeachment Inquiry. Trump’s Allies Have a Plan to Get Them.

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As House lawmakers return from a summer recess next week, with less than a month to pass a federal budget, the GOP’s hard-right flank plans to impose a thorny ultimatum on its caucus: open an impeachment inquiry into President Joe Biden or risk a government shutdown.

The scenario is setting up a potentially combustible standoff. Republicans have only a slim five-member majority, and there are nearly twenty House GOP dissenters, according to sources familiar with the matter. Speaker Kevin McCarthy has said he would only initiate an impeachment inquiry after a full House vote.

It’s a moment Official Washington has been bracing for since last November, when Republicans won control of the lower chamber and went straight for Biden’s jugular. But the House Oversight Committee’s months-long investigation has yet to find evidence that the President profited from his son Hunter Biden’s business dealings. That’s led to resistance among some powerful GOP bigwigs, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. “Impeachment ought to be rare,” he said. “This is not good for the country.” 

None of that is slowing down the House Republicans who are hungry for Biden to endure an impeachment ordeal while Donald Trump is facing four separate court cases, all of which could go to trial over the next year. And they are mustering a strategy to flip their reluctant GOP colleagues: force a vote and subject the defectors to the wrath of a MAGA-fueled retaliation and social media onslaught.

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“Let me tell you the greatest thing that can happen,” Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia tells TIME. “If I were Speaker of the House, I would put the impeachment inquiry vote to the floor on September 12 when we got back, whether it fails or not. Then I'd let those members who voted against it hear from their constituents. And then I'd put it back to the floor for a vote again, and I can guarantee they will sing a different tune.”

It’s a tactic that has worked for Trump-allied Republicans before. In June, Rep. Anna Paulina Luna forced a vote to censure Rep. Adam Schiff, the California Democrat who led Trump’s first impeachment and served on the Jan. 6 Committee, but the measure fell short because of 20 GOP holdouts. After Luna and her allies orchestrated a social media backlash against the Republican detractors—and removed a provision that would have fined Schiff $16 million—the Florida freshman reintroduced the motion a week later. This time, it passed on a party-line vote. Not a single Republican voted against it.

Now, Republicans are exploring that same blueprint to push forward an impeachment inquiry, the formal mechanism that initiates the impeachment process. “I have no problem calling out names,” Greene says. In the interview, she cited Reps. Don Bacon of Nebraska, Ken Buck of Colorado, Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania, Mike Lawler of New York, Tom McClintock of New York, and Darrell Issa of California as impeachment opponents. “I think people need to start taking the American people seriously instead of worrying about a bad article or the Democrats saying that it's going to hurt Republicans in re-election. I'll argue that is very much a lie.” 

She’s not alone. Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida, another staunch Trump ally, has threatened to force a vote on launching an inquiry, suggesting that his fellow Republicans could move to oust the speaker should McCarthy not put the measure on the floor. 

Over the summer, momentum has been building among the GOP to pursue the President’s removal after two IRS whistleblowers alleged that the Justice Department gave Hunter Biden a sweetheart deal. Their alacrity to impeach Biden intensified after discovering that he used email aliases as Vice President. Republicans like Greene and Gaetz say the Oversight Committee has turned up enough suspicious activity to warrant a full inquiry. Now, Greene insists she won’t vote to fund the government unless House Republicans do precisely that.

McCarthy has vocally supported opening an impeachment inquiry but has faced pushback within his conference. Some of his members, such as Lawler, are in districts that Biden won in 2020 and worry that an inquiry will hurt their re-election chances, sources say. It’s a sentiment echoed by Democrats, who suspect they would benefit politically from the spectacle. “Go ahead. Do it, I dare you,” Sen. John Fetterman of Pennsylvania told reporters Wednesday. “It would just be like a big circle jerk on the fringe right.”

Yet other Republicans, like Bacon, say the congressional investigations have failed to prove that Biden committed a high crime or misdemeanor. “We’ve got to have some kind of direct evidence of a crime that points to the President,” Bacon tells TIME. “Or if the President doesn't answer the subpoenas or provide the information that's being requested, that would also be grounds for an inquiry.” Until then, Bacon adds, he won’t budge: “We don't want an impeachment to be this thing we do with every presidency. It shouldn't be revenge politics. Though it feels good to have revenge, it’s not good for the country.”

The Biden administration has dismissed the GOP push to impeach Biden as designed more to hurt the President 2024 election prospects than to hold him accountable for alleged transgressions. “If Speaker McCarthy opens an impeachment inquiry simply to throw red meat to his most extreme far-right members, it will further prove this is nothing more than an evidence-free political stunt to baselessly attack the President,” Ian Sams, a White House spokesperson, tells TIME.

Republicans, for their part, have argued that they are only asking to open an impeachment inquiry to expand their investigation into the President and his wayward son Hunter, who federal prosecutors plan to indict later this month on gun charges. “An impeachment inquiry is completely different from impeachment itself,” Greene says. “It's just an inquiry. It's like, may we ask the question? Let's take a little peek, just a little peeky peek. To me, it's absurd to not be able to vote yes for that.”

Such a probe could potentially put Biden in a bind, according to Michael Conway, an attorney who served as counsel for the House Judiciary Committee’s 1974 impeachment inquiry into former President Richard Nixon. One of the three articles of impeachment that were considered against Nixon, he notes, was for defying the impeachment inquiry itself. 

“It’s the apex of congressional power and the President's refusal to comply with the subpoenas was itself an impeachable act,” Conway tells TIME. “We didn't have any greater ability to actually get the documents. But the Constitution gives us the House the power to impeach if you impede the impeachment inquiry. That itself is an impeachable offense. They could send any kind of subpoena and then on a partisan vote say the President didn't give us what we asked for.”

For that reason, some moderate Republicans fear that once they start the process of impeaching Biden, there will be no turning back. And they are up against members of their own conference who are not afraid to hold the federal budget hostage to their demands. 

“The only place in America that thinks the government shutdown is a big deal is Washington D.C.,” Greene says. “Outside of Washington, D.C., if you ask regular Americans, they could care less honestly. As a matter of fact, they laugh when that is brought up. Like, who cares? We still go to work every day. We still do our jobs.”

But Greene and her comrades are betting that their colleagues who say they’re dead set against an inquiry might soon fall in line, especially if it helps avoid both a shutdown and the derision of an expectant GOP base.  

“We have a duty to take hard votes,” Greene says, “whether we like it or not.” 

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