Conservatives who spent months worrying that their drive to impeach Joe Biden would go nowhere under Kevin McCarthy hope it’s just a matter of time before Republicans vote to remove the president under Speaker Mike Johnson.
The Louisiana conservative — a longtime member of the committee that’d oversee an impeachment inquiry — has leaned into the right flank’s unproven allegation that Joe Biden took actions as president or vice president to benefit his family’s business deals. But his calculation is more complicated as speaker, since he has to protect members in battleground districts who worry an impeachment vote would hurt them back home.
Many centrist and conservative GOP members are waiting to see more signals from Johnson on how he’ll move forward on impeachment, particularly with the House majority at risk. However, some of the loudest Republican impeachment voices already view him as a natural ally.
“I think Mike Johnson is more than happy to move forward, and will move forward, and the only question is the timeline,” Rep. Andy Ogles of Tennessee, a House Freedom Caucus member, said in an interview.
Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greeneof Georgia, who has authored resolutions to oust Biden as well as repeatedly pushed for more action, added: “I definitely think he’ll be supportive.”
The right flank cites two points in Johnson’s favor: he brings conservative credentials to the role — compared with a less ideological McCarthy, who they saw as reluctant to make centrists take an uncomfortable impeachment vote — and his position on the Judiciary Committee, which put him on the front lines of two Donald Trump impeachments. In a speech last month backing the impeachment inquiry, Johnson appeared to signal he believes the bar had been met to vote on removing Biden, though he hasn’t directly said he supports it.
“The mounting evidence … shows that Joseph Biden has engaged in bribery schemes, pay-to-play schemes,” Johnson said, noting that the Constitution says a president “shall be removed from office on impeachment for and conviction of treason, bribery or high crimes and misdemeanors.”
But navigating the House as speaker is more complex than as a member. The first problem is the time crunch: Republicans’ No. 1 priority is funding the government, particularly avoiding a Nov. 17 shutdown deadline, not impeachment. After that date, it’s a slog of more spending bills, sweeping defense policy legislation and other must-pass issues like an expiring surveillance authority and the Federal Aviation Administration Authorization.
Plus, Johnson has to worry about political blowback on battleground members — a concern made more acute by time constraints, since impeachment discussions appear all but guaranteed to drag into 2024. Asked about the perception from some conservatives that he’ll be friendlier toward impeachment, Corinne Day, a spokesperson for Johnson, said in a statement that the new speaker “will continue to follow the facts where they lead. He has full faith in the Committee chairs to continue doing this work.”
Signs of coming tensions have quietly percolated behind the scenes. Some centrist Republicans warned each speaker designate against moving forward with impeachment unless they have a clear smoking gun, according to a Republican with knowledge of those conservations that occurred during the three-week gavel race.
And as speaker candidates fielded questions on impeachment during a closed-door forum this week, one Republican stood up to make the argument that the 2024 election, not ousting Biden, was the best way to hold him accountable, according to a GOP member in the room, granted anonymity to discuss internal meetings.
“I think what Congressman Mike Johnson led is going to be somewhat moderated by the need to lead the conference and ensure that whatever action we take as a body is supported by fact, and law,” said centrist Rep. Marc Molinaro (R-N.Y.). “He recognizes the divergent interests within the conference.”
Other centrists and governing-minded lawmakers are making it clear they support the investigations being led by Judiciary Chair Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) and Oversight Chair James Comer (R-Ky.). They just aren’t ready to bear hug impeachment yet.
“I don’t think anyone wants to move forward with impeachment unless they’ve got a smoking gun or at least some evidence,” said Rep. Mike Garcia (R-Calif.). “If there is not information to substantiate, then we won’t move forward. But the inquiry and the hearings need to move forward, so that’s the key.”
Meanwhile, conservative Rep. Ken Buck (R-Colo.) acknowledged that Johnson can’t kibosh the inquiry altogether, saying “that toothpaste is out of the tube.” But he hopes the Louisianian will take a different tack than McCarthy.
“I think as an attorney he will be more careful in bringing impeachment to the floor,” Buck said.
And it’s not just the Biden impeachment on the table. Greene asked speaker candidates whether they would also go after top administration officials, including Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas and Attorney General Merrick Garland, according to a Republican with direct knowledge. Johnson previously told POLITICO he supports impeaching Mayorkas.
Republicans are deep into a monthslong investigation into the president, his son Hunter Biden and other family members as they search for sufficiently convincing evidence that links decisions Joe Biden made as vice president or president to the business arrangements of his family members.
And while Republicans have unearthed plenty of evidence that Hunter Biden traded on his father’s name, they’ve struggled to show a true connection to Joe Biden’s official actions.
Still, McCarthy opened the impeachment inquiry in mid-September — a decision hard-right Republicans viewed as an ultimately unsuccessful political move to try to save his speakership. Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla) was making early threats of triggering an ouster push at the time.
And while those same members are being careful not to box Johnson in less than 48 hours into his speakership, they view him as a more trustworthy partner. That means they believe that once he takes a position on impeachment, he will stick to it.
Gaetz, who has compared the Biden inquiry to “failure theater,” cautioned that he didn’t “want to pre-judge the speaker” but predicted “Mike Johnson will approach this like a lawyer” and not “like a desperate person trying to cling to power.”
“I don’t believe that the impeachment effort under Kevin McCarthy was intended to convict Joe Biden as much as it was to save Kevin McCarthy,” he added.
Rep. Dan Bishop (R-N.C.), another member of the Judiciary Committee, added that Johnson wouldn’t try to “head fake” the conference on his impeachment strategy.
“Mike Johnson doesn’t scheme and convince, he’s honest, he’s straightforward,” Bishop said. “He believes in what we’re doing.”