Your guide to an impeachment inquiry: Breaking down the GOP’s pursuit of Biden

House Republicans are entering a new phase in their potential impeachment of President Joe Biden — one that raises plenty of questions about what comes next.

The GOP investigation, which centers on the business deals of Hunter Biden and other family members, has yet to find any clear link between Joe Biden’s actions as president or vice president and his family’s financial arrangements. Despite that, every House Republican on Wednesday supported a formal inquiry to try to uncover a smoking gun.

That unity sent GOP lawmakers home from Washington with high spirits, even as the president and Democrats torched their efforts as a politically motivated sideshow.

Regardless of the substance of their impeachment inquiry, the vote to formalize it does give them more legal authority as they seek to enforce their subpoenas and records requests. It also creates a new set of hurdles for them to clear before they decide whether to pursue formal articles of impeachment.

Here’s a guide to the basics — and the complications — of the impeachment inquiry.

Does Congress always vote to formally launch impeachment inquiries?

Congress has extremely wide latitude in what it chooses to investigate. But the House's vote to formalize an impeachment inquiry strengthens the probe’s legal power as its committees issue subpoenas and demand documents. It also sets parameters and assigns panels to lead the investigation.

The House has impeached a president before without a vote to greenlight an inquiry. Former President Donald Trump’s second impeachment, for example, saw articles introduced five days after the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.

On the other side was the impeachment of former President Bill Clinton, when House Republicans voted not only to launch an inquiry, but again months later to expand the scope of the probe beyond what was in the initial resolution.

Former Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) eventually followed that formalizing model in 2019 for Trump's first impeachment. After months of unofficial investigations into Trump, she put an official launch of the inquiry into Trump to a vote on the House floor after pushback from the White House.

Do you need a formal inquiry to subpoena witnesses and get records?

The technical answer here is no — Republicans have held depositions and received tens of thousands of documents already without a formal vote.

But as they’ve tried to lock down final interviews, they’ve gotten pushback from the White House, which is taking a page from an unusual corner: Trump's administration.

White House counsel Richard Sauber, in a letter last month, rebuffed House Republicans’ subpoena of a former White House counsel, pointing back to a January 2020 DOJ opinion. At the time, the Trump administration had pushed back on Pelosi’s decision to launch an impeachment inquiry without initially holding a vote, declaring Democrats’ demands invalid unless the chamber formally authorized them.

“[W]e conclude that the House must expressly authorize a committee to conduct an impeachment investigation and to use compulsory process in that investigation before the committee may compel the production of documents or testimony,” wrote Steven Engel, then the head of DOJ’s Office of Legal Counsel.

Does a formal inquiry mean we’ll see public hearings?

Not necessarily. And in this case, it’s possible they skip the dramatic public hearings before drafting articles of impeachment.

Oversight Chair James Comer (R-Ky.) and Judiciary Chair Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), who are leading the inquiry, have not ruled out more hearings — and they’ve even said they are willing to do one with Hunter Biden if he sits for a closed-door deposition first. The inquiry resolution passed this week also lays out what those hearings would look like.

But as the two chairs plot out the final weeks of their investigation, they have a clear priority: finishing transcribed interviews and getting the rest of the documents they’ve requested. They are also preparing to go to court to compel testimony from two DOJ tax officials, and potentially also a former White House counsel.

Plus, Hunter Biden defied Republicans’ subpoena this week, showing up to the Capitol but skipping a closed-door interview. Rather than give in to his demands to hold a public hearing, Comer and Jordan have indicated they’ll likely push a vote to hold him in contempt of Congress.

Who DECIDES whether to introduce articles of impeachment?

Jordan referenced Trump’s first impeachment as a blueprint for how and when articles could be drafted for Biden — meaning that the Oversight Committee will likely issue a report and then, per the Ohio Republican, “the conference will make a decision on whether there’s articles.”

Ultimately, the decision to bring articles of impeachment to the floor rests with Speaker Mike Johnson. But with an agonizingly small majority, the posture of the GOP conference will play a significant role in that choice.

Johnson will face pressure from his right flank to impeach Biden while centrists, Republicans in battleground districts and even some old-school pragmatists may want a proverbial smoking gun if they are going to take the vote.

How long does it typically take between the House starting an inquiry and a vote to impeach?

Despite the tumult of the last four years, impeachments are exceedingly rare. And none have taken more than a few months between the start of an inquiry and a vote to actually remove a president.

Two of American history's four impeachments have taken the House about three months from the announcement of an inquiry to a vote on the House floor:

  • Trump’s first impeachment: Pelosi announced that six House committees would begin a formal impeachment inquiry into Trump on Sept. 24, 2019. The House voted on Dec. 18 to impeach Trump on two counts: abuse of power and obstruction of Congress. 
  • Clinton Impeachment: On Sept. 24, 1998, the House Judiciary Committee announced a resolution to begin an impeachment inquiry. On Dec. 19, the House voted to impeach Clinton on two charges: perjury to a grand jury and obstruction of justice. 

The other two impeachments moved quickly. That includes the second time the House tried to remove Trump from office, which was nearly immediate. Though the chamber flirted repeatedly with moving to boot former President Andrew Johnson back in 1868 the final vote happened swiftly.
The Biden probe is on track to take a bit longer. For months, vulnerable Republicans fought against formalizing the impeachment inquiry, and the House GOP also spent three weeks trying to replace Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) as speaker. Key investigators say they’re aiming to decide whether to draft articles of impeachment as soon as mid-January.

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