WASHINGTON — Since the day President Biden took office, Republicans have publicly called for his impeachment, introducing more than a dozen resolutions accusing him and his top officials of high crimes and misdemeanors and running campaign ads and fund-raising appeals vowing to remove the president from office at the first opportunity.
But in the homestretch of a campaign that has brought the party tantalizingly close to winning control of Congress, top Republicans are seeking to downplay the chances that they will impeach Mr. Biden, distancing themselves from a polarizing issue that could alienate voters just as polls show the midterm elections breaking their way.
“I think the country doesn’t like impeachment used for political purposes at all,” Representative Kevin McCarthy, Republican of California and the minority leader, told Punchbowl News earlier this month. While he didn’t rule out moving forward on impeachment hearings if something rose “to that occasion,” Mr. McCarthy said the country needed to “heal” and that voters wanted to “start to see the system that actually works.”
Still, should he become House speaker, Mr. McCarthy would be under immense pressure from hard-right members of his rank and file — and from core Republican voters who swept his party into the majority in part based on promises to take down Mr. Biden — to impeach. The pressure will only increase if former President Donald J. Trump adds his voice to those pushing for the move.
It is just one of a series of confounding issues Mr. McCarthy would face as speaker, testing his grip on power and bearing heavy consequences for Mr. Biden and the country.
“There have already been impeachment articles, and I expect you’ll get more of that in the next Congress,” said former Representative Tom Davis, Republican of Virginia. “There’s certainly going to be pressure for this to go.”
Some influential Republicans have been moving aggressively toward impeachment for years, demanding punishment for Mr. Biden and his administration as well as vengeance for Democrats’ two impeachments of Mr. Trump.
“Joe Biden is guilty of committing high crimes and misdemeanors,” Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, Republican of Georgia, wrote in a recent fund-raising email. “And it’s time for Congress to IMPEACH, CONVICT, and REMOVE Biden from office.”
Ms. Greene has already introduced five articles of impeachment against Mr. Biden, including one the day he took office, when she accused him of abusing his power while serving as vice president to benefit his son Hunter Biden’s business dealings in Ukraine.
Privately, many Republican lawmakers and staff members concede that there does not appear to be any clear-cut case of high crimes and misdemeanors by Mr. Biden or members of his cabinet that would meet the bar for impeachment.
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But Mr. McCarthy has hardly rejected the prospect. Pressed recently on whether Mr. Biden or any officials in his administration deserved to be impeached, he said, “I don’t see it before me right now.”
The response reflected an awareness that impeachment — as commonplace as it has become — is deeply unpopular. A national University of Massachusetts Amherst poll released in May showed that 66 percent of voters oppose impeachment, including 44 percent who said they strongly oppose the move.
One of the concerns Democrats have expressed about electing a Republican majority in the House is that it would result in gridlock and dysfunction.
“Nothing symbolizes that more than the idea of a whole-cloth impeachment of President Biden,” said Geoff Garin, a Democratic pollster.
Still, many Republican lawmakers and candidates likely to be elected to the House next month have been running on the issue, creating a groundswell of pressure for Mr. McCarthy, who would need their votes to become speaker.
“I say if you’re the commander in chief and you invite an invasion on our southern border, if you’re the commander in chief and you leave Americans on the battlefield in Afghanistan to fall into the hands of the Taliban, what are we supposed to do with you?” Joe Kent, a Republican and 2020 election denier running for a House seat in Washington, said in a radio interview. “This is exactly why we have the ability to impeach presidents.”
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Representative Claudia Tenney, Republican of New York, ran a television advertisement over the summer calling for impeachment proceedings against Mr. Biden. “Whether it is Joe Biden’s dereliction of duty at the southern border or his disastrous retreat in Afghanistan, I have called for Joe Biden to answer to the American people in impeachment hearings,” Ms. Tenney says in the ad.
Overall 10 House Republicans have either introduced or sponsored a total of 21 articles of impeachment against Mr. Biden and his top officials since the start of the administration.
The charges include a broad variety of offenses, including a failure to enforce immigration laws, a botched withdrawal from Afghanistan and the extension of a moratorium on residential evictions. In addition to a dozen against Mr. Biden, there is a single article against Vice President Kamala Harris; two each against Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken and Alejandro N. Mayorkas, the homeland security secretary; and four against Attorney General Merrick B. Garland.
In a recent interview with The New York Times Magazine, Ms. Greene shrugged off Mr. McCarthy’s equivocation about impeachment.
“I think people underestimate him, in thinking he wouldn’t do it,” she said, adding that a Speaker McCarthy would give her “a lot of power and a lot of leeway” in order to fulfill his job and “please the base.”
Democrats, too, assume that Mr. McCarthy will not be able to resist the pressure to impeach Mr. Biden — all the more so if Mr. Trump is running for president in 2024 and wants what he sees as retribution for his two impeachments. The White House has spent months preparing for the possibility.
The challenge Mr. McCarthy faces is similar to the one that Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Democrat of California, confronted during the 2018 midterm election campaign, when a small but vocal group of progressives was demanding Mr. Trump’s impeachment. Back then, she and other leading Democrats toiled to avoid publicly talking about the subject, wary of distractions from their message that could alienate independent voters and cost them their chance at winning control of the House.
The task grew more difficult after they won; immediately after she was sworn in to Congress in 2019, for instance, Representative Rashida Tlaib, Democrat of Michigan, told supporters “we’re going to impeach” Mr. Trump, using an expletive to refer to him.
Even after Robert S. Mueller III, the special counsel investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election, documented multiple instances of obstruction of justice by Mr. Trump, House Democrats were cautious about pursuing impeachment. It took nine months to get Ms. Pelosi on board.
“People can be very critical of Biden on political or policy grounds,” said Norman L. Eisen, who served as a lawyer for Democrats during the first impeachment of Mr. Trump. “But those are not high crimes and misdemeanors — not even close. If it’s politically difficult to do impeachment when you have compelling proof of multiple high crimes, how much more so when there’s no evidence of constitutional crimes?”
It can also be politically risky, if past impeachments are any guide. The impeachment of President Bill Clinton in 1998 backfired badly on House Republicans, making Mr. Clinton more popular than at any other time of his presidency; Democrats picked up five seats in the House that fall.
Newt Gingrich, the House speaker who quit Congress after Mr. Clinton’s impeachment amid ethics allegations and Republican losses, said he was advising Mr. McCarthy against it.
“All you have to do is say to people, ‘Kamala Harris,’” Mr. Gingrich said. “Tell me the endgame that makes any sense. As bad as Biden is, she’d be vastly worse. I don’t think the brand-new Republican majority should waste their time on a dead end.”
Karl Rove, the Republican strategist and the founder of a constellation of Republican fund-raising groups, also said the party would want to focus on other priorities.
“Most Republican members are going to say: ‘Really? We’re going to waste our time and energy on this when there’s no chance in hell of two-thirds of the Senate voting to convict?’” Mr. Rove said. “Instead of combating inflation, freeing up American energy, fighting the wokeness, we’re going to engage in this?”
It takes a majority in the House to impeach a president, but two-thirds in the Senate to convict and remove one from office.
Representative Jim Jordan, the Ohio Republican who is in line to be the chair of the Judiciary Committee if his party wins control of the House, has floated the possibility of impeachment but more recently has taken a less committal stance.
“That’s a call for the committee, for Republicans on the committee, in consultation with the entire conference,” he said in a recent interview.
Asked whether Republican voters were demanding impeachment, Mr. Jordan said: “Voters are demanding the facts and the truth.”
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