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The politics of McCarthy's impeachment inquiry into Biden

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

It's a big month for Congress and for House Speaker Kevin McCarthy. McCarthy, you may recall, had to weather 15 rounds of votes at the beginning of the year to be elected speaker. And since winning that job, he has had to hold a caucus together that is made up of right-wing populists eager to push Trumpism and eager to flex their power but also a group of moderates from Democratic-leaning states who helped give Republicans the majority and are in danger in next year's elections. All the while, McCarthy has been trying to head off repeated threats to his own job. All of that may be coming to a head in the coming weeks as McCarthy and other congressional leaders navigate a government funding deadline and a push from the hard-liners in his party to force a government shutdown. So it was a bit surprising when McCarthy added another big element to the mix.

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KEVIN MCCARTHY: You know, the months that we were gone and the weeks, House Republicans have uncovered serious and credible allegations into President Biden's conduct. Taken together, these allegations paint a picture of a culture of corruption.

DETROW: It is important to point out that House Republicans have not singled out a clear impeachable action as they've probed the business dealings of Biden's criminally charged son, Hunter, among other things. But still, McCarthy announced...

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MCCARTHY: I am directing our House committee to open a formal impeachment inquiry into President Joe Biden.

DETROW: If McCarthy's calculation was that this might get conservatives pushing impeachment to back down, he was wrong. Just after the announcement, Florida Republican Representative Matt Gaetz took to the House floor.

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MATT GAETZ: I rise today to serve notice. Mr. Speaker, you are out of compliance with the agreement that allowed you to assume this role. The path forward for the House of Representatives is to either bring you into immediate, total compliance or remove you pursuant to a motion to vacate the chair.

DETROW: In our Sunday cover story, Speaker Kevin McCarthy is struggling to unite Trump-era Republicans around a plan to avert a government shutdown at the end of the month, and he's trying to protect his job as speaker. So what does he do next, and how does this play out? To talk about that and to better understand McCarthy's motivations, we are joined by NPR's congressional correspondent Deirdre Walsh. Hey, Deirdre.

DEIRDRE WALSH, BYLINE: Hey, Scott.

DETROW: So to be fair to McCarthy, he has - so far, at least - found his way through these various situations, right? Took him 15 tries to be speaker. Right now, he is speaker of the House. He did succeed. So how is that dynamic that keeps replaying itself playing out in this moment?

WALSH: He still has this razor-thin margin. So he's trying to keep his members united. The other thing about McCarthy is he came up through the ranks, really, as a political operator, not so much as a legislator. So he doesn't have a lot of experience navigating these big bipartisan negotiations. He gained some in the debt ceiling with President Biden, but he left that to his lieutenants. They did the substance. The problem is that debt ceiling deal is sort of coming home to roost because he agreed with the president to the spending levels. A bunch of conservatives who didn't vote for that deal don't want to go along with it, and that's sort of the root of the problem in this big spending fight right now. And one of those conservatives, Matt Gaetz from Florida, is now threatening to oust the speaker. As we learned during the election of the speaker, the rule is only one member has to say, I raise a motion to vacate the chair, which, essentially, is a vote of confidence on the speaker...

DETROW: Yeah.

WALSH: ...And he's threatening to do that. Things came to a head in their closed-door meeting. I mean, Kevin McCarthy basically said to Matt Gaetz, bring it on.

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MCCARTHY: Most people get to speaker on the first round. It took me 15. I'm a little Irish, OK? So I don't walk away from a battle. I knew changing Washington would not be easy. I knew people would fight or try to hold leverage for other things. I'm going to continue to just focus on what's the right thing to do for the American people. And you know what? If it takes a fight, we'll have a fight.

DETROW: Deirdre, you could speak from experience. Is taking 15 rounds to get your job a particularly Irish thing?

WALSH: I didn't know that, as an Irish-American.

DETROW: Well...

WALSH: But McCarthy frequently talks about that...

DETROW: Yeah.

WALSH: ...His Irish stick-to-it-iveness is part of his character, and that's part of who he is. And he's there for it.

DETROW: And you can see that mindset going into all of the different dynamics he's playing out. But just real quick, you talked about that - that razor-thin margin. You talked about the hard-right members of his caucus. And there are more moderate members of his caucus, and they are the ones who are endangered and could flip the House back to Democrats next year if they lose. How does he keep both sides happy in impeachment? That seems particularly impossible to me.

WALSH: Right. I think right now, what he's doing is he's walking this line announcing the impeachment inquiry himself and not actually doing the vote to launch an impeachment, which, just 10 days ago, he insisted, I'm never going to do an impeachment inquiry without a House vote. I think he realized that would put those members in a tough position. So he reversed himself, and he's kind of taking the hit for flip-flopping by not forcing them to go on the record. And the ones that I've talked to that are in those swing districts are basically saying, I'm OK with an inquiry. Let's just see where the facts lead. And for now, they don't have to vote on anything. So they sort of see it as something that's happening in the future.

DETROW: So let's talk more about today's political problem, and that is this looming government shutdown possibility. But McCarthy seemed to do everything he could to avoid this, right? He negotiated a spending plan with President Biden during the debt limit standoff last year. He didn't want to be here. Why is he here?

WALSH: It comes down to that same group of 20 or so hard-line conservative House members who reluctantly elected Speaker McCarthy eventually but hated the debt deal and saw as part of the deal to elect McCarthy a commitment to cut spending. So they say right now he's not delivering on the promises he made when they negotiated him eventually getting the votes to be elected speaker. I don't know how he gets out of this because of that razor-thin margin. Right now, any bill he puts on the floor, he has to pass just with Republican votes. Chip Roy from Texas is one of those leading conservatives negotiating with the speaker right now. And he's saying, look, shutdown's not a big problem. The folks back home want to see us fight. And he was Senator Ted Cruz's chief of staff during the infamous 2013 shutdown. And he thought it worked out well for Republicans. And here's Chip Roy talking about that.

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CHIP ROY: Because my former boss, Senator Cruz, went down and fought Obamacare, and the American people saw that fight. They're seeing us fighting for them right now.

WALSH: And I think that as long as you have that group who feel like a shutdown isn't a big deal, McCarthy faces this internal battle that he's going to eventually have to go to Democrats for the votes.

DETROW: So, I mean, I guess the question is, how serious is the risk to McCarthy's job? Because we have been talking about it for nearly a full year now. And like we said, he is still speaker. The motion to vacate the chair still has not happened yet. How real is this versus posturing?

WALSH: I think it's very real.

DETROW: OK.

WALSH: Even strong allies of Kevin McCarthy believe that they're going to have to vote on a motion to oust him before the end of this year. A lot of them would just like to get it over with now. They admit they're not entirely sure how it's going to go. I mean, the open question there is, what do the Democrats do? Remember, they need 218 to pass this. So even if all of McCarthy's allies vote no, some Democrats could cross over to remove him. But then what happens? What kind of chaos ensues then? So I think it's an open question. I think we'll see this vote at some point.

DETROW: That was NPR's congressional correspondent Deirdre Walsh. Now, not many people have been in McCarthy's position. Someone who has is former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. We called him up to get his take, and Gingrich says he thinks McCarthy is right to call the bluff of the lawmakers threatening him.

NEWT GINGRICH: One member can be a nuisance, but can they get enough votes? My guess is McCarthy is the speaker, will be the speaker. So there are people who just hate McCarthy. That's just part of the business.

DETROW: So on the two big things facing McCarthy right now - we could take them one at a time. I'm curious what you think the biggest challenges are. Let's start with impeachment 'cause right there, you've got two factions of the caucus diametrically opposed, at least at the moment. And I don't think it's mathematically possible to move forward and keep them both happy. You have the Freedom Caucus types we talk so much about, and you have the moderates who are in more danger next year, who don't want to take a vote on this. What would you do?

GINGRICH: Right. Well, I would do exactly what McCarthy has done, which is move to an inquiry, not to impeachment, and to see what the evidence is. One of two things will happen. It'll turn out there's nothing there, that it was just a bunch of rumors. It'll disappear. The moderates will be happy. Or it'll turn out that the scale of corruption is so clear, so vast, in a way that you just can't ignore, in which case, people back home will tell the moderates, yeah, you have no choice.

DETROW: Mr. Speaker, you have some experience with impeachment yourself.

GINGRICH: Right.

DETROW: You moved forward with an impeachment case. And the decades-later shorthand is kind of that it did more political damage in the short term to your party than the person that you were impeaching. What did you learn from that experience that you think McCarthy should do differently or the same as he kind of starts to look into this?

GINGRICH: I learned that going to an inquiry is a really useful start. I also learned that in the end, impeachment is an inherently political process. If the American people are with you - there's a great Lincoln quote that with popular sentiment, anything is possible. Without popular sentiment, nothing is possible. I felt strongly, and still do, that Bill Clinton committed a felony. Now, so my advice is go slow. Make sure you communicate with the American people, and the American people ultimately will tell you.

DETROW: One other question - another thing you've had some experience with. What - how do you see this government funding stalemate playing out over the next few weeks? How likely do you think a shutdown is, given the dynamics in McCarthy's caucus and everything else?

GINGRICH: Well, first of all, I am the one person that you'll talk to who will tell you that the shutdowns did not hurt the Republicans...

DETROW: Yeah?

GINGRICH: ...At all, period. We shut the government down twice, once for 27 days, in a genuine fight over getting to a balanced budget. And we became the first reelected House Republican majority since 1928. So tell me how it hurt us. I think that McCarthy has got to do one or two things. He either has to convince the hard-liners that there is a path that they can be on with him, and he can pass something with Republican votes, which is what he did do on the debt ceiling. And that gave him the strongest possible position. And basically, he won and outmaneuvered both the Senate and Biden. Now, if he can't do that, he will sooner or later have to cut a deal with the Democrats, which will make part of his conference unhappy. But the fact is that that's the part of the conference that is least interested in compromise and hasn't thought through that if they don't find some point of compromise internally, they will get a much worse deal.

DETROW: That's former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. Thanks so much for joining us.

GINGRICH: Glad to do it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Deirdre Walsh is the congress editor for NPR's Washington Desk.