(CNN) – While the weekslong speaker fight consumed public attention, the House Republican-led committees leading the impeachment inquiry into President Joe Biden continued to work behind the scenes, holding a string of highly anticipated closed-door interviews and receiving more bank records from Hunter and James Biden.
But now that Speaker Mike Johnson, a member of the House Judiciary Committee, has been elected, Republicans have the tall task of creating public momentum for an effort that has yet to resonate beyond its far-right base and present evidence that rises to the level of impeachment.
The inquiry into the president was off to a rocky start before former House Speaker Kevin McCarthy was ousted, but the three weeks of infighting culminating in Republicans electing Johnson have left in its wake an entirely new landscape, exacerbating divisions in the GOP conference and cutting down the legislative calendar to a point where the entire Republican agenda beyond essential functions such as funding the government has lost momentum.
“We wasted 22 days,” said House Ways and Means Chairman Jason Smith, a Republican from Missouri who leads one of the panels tasked with the inquiry.
The prospect of when the inquiry can be finished is also thrown into question given the speaker’s race ate up so much of the legislative calendar.
Another unknown factor is how House Judiciary Chairman Jim Jordan – who spent much of the last three weeks running for speaker – will return to the scene. Republicans have long relied on Jordan to be their top messenger on hot button issues, but the unwavering opposition Jordan faced from a significant portion of his colleagues exposed the limitations of his reach in the conference.
Over the course of the three weeks without a speaker, Republican staff with the House Oversight and Judiciary committees maintained that their work was still in full swing. Judiciary spokesman Russell Dye said in a statement to CNN that the inquiry has “ramped up” over the past few weeks from conducting interviews, reviewing bank records and compiling testimony and documents “for future public consumption,” adding “nothing has slowed us down.”
On Monday, when eight candidates, including Johnson, presented their pitch to be speaker, none of them highlighted the inquiry as a priority, multiple lawmakers in the room told CNN. Johnson though has long been a proponent of the inquiry, is in regular contact with Jordan, and told CNN earlier this month he met with Oversight Chairman James Comer, a Kentucky Republican, in the midst of the speaker’s race when Jordan was still a candidate for an update on Oversight’s work. And some members from the far right say since he is coming from the Judiciary panel, Johnson is best situated to give the inquiry the proper attention and focus.
The new speaker told Fox News’ Sean Hannity in a Thursday interview that House Republicans will continue to follow the facts and said, “the evidence is coming together.”
“If, in fact, all the evidence leads to where we believe it will, that’s very likely impeachable offenses,” Johnson said.
While he acknowledged that some in his party are getting “anxious” and “restless” because “they just want somebody to be impeached,” he stressed that any articles must be based on evidence.
A source familiar with Johnson’s thinking told CNN, “He believes it’s a fact-finding mission. And he trusts Comer, Jordan and Smith to finalize their investigations, give him a recommendation and he supports the chairmen.”
House Judiciary Committee member Rep. Jeff Van Drew acknowledged to CNN on Thursday that the prolonged speaker’s battle has made the inquiry “fizzled a little.”
“That slowed things down,” the New Jersey Republican said of the speaker’s race impact on the inquiry. “That was one of my concerns with the entire issue of speaker. The longer we went without one, the more that this would become problematic.”
That reality is making it even more difficult to get swing district Republicans, many of whom were already skeptical of the inquiry and are now preoccupied with keeping the government open past November 17, onboard with the effort.
GOP Rep. Jen Kiggans, who represents a Virginia district Biden won in 2020, told CNN, “We have so much work we need to get done including these appropriations bills. Let’s focus on that first.”
“Do I think that the American people, you know, the majority of American people, actually put that on the front-burner and prioritize that right now? I don’t think so,” GOP Rep. Mike Garcia, who represents a competitive district in California, told CNN of the inquiry. “I think we need to get the trains back on the rail and get our government running again, avoid a shutdown, fund the government. And then look at those things.”
Even Rep. Ralph Norman, a conservative hardliner from South Carolina, posed to CNN, “Have the facts increased? I would make the argument that they did. And so, the public needs to know it. Now, I don’t know whether we can pass it in here or not.”
And while a number of Republicans want the panels to continue their investigative work, they recognize it is not the top priority of the conference.
“I do think that James Comer and Jim Jordan will continue with their investigations and if they’re able to bring forward enough evidence that we can convince the Americans that there is the need for impeachment, then at that stage I would think we would move forward,” GOP Rep. Austin Scott of Georgia told CNN. “But right now, it’s about making sure we don’t end up in a shutdown and continuing to get the appropriations measures passed. So, I think the investigations continue, but it’s not a front burner issue for me.”
House Republicans have not held an impeachment inquiry hearing since their first one on September 28, where expert witnesses brought in by Republicans acknowledged they did not yet have the evidence to prove the accusations leveled against the president.
“When you’re at bat, you get more than on swing,” Van Drew said of the first hearing. “I don’t know that every hearing is going to show what we want.”
After that hearing, GOP Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida congratulated a number of Democratic lawmakers on their performance against Republicans on the House floor, multiple sources told CNN.
“They think the hearing was a dumpster fire,” one Democratic lawmaker who spoke to Republicans shared with CNN.
The House Oversight Committee was at one point looking at bringing in Hunter Biden business associate Tony Bobulinski in October at a second inquiry hearing, a source familiar told CNN, but those plans have yet to come to fruition.
Now that a new speaker is elected, Democrats are also expected to try to invalidate the impeachment inquiry since it was unilaterally started under McCarthy and never received an official floor vote, a Democratic aide familiar with the plans told CNN.
GOP Rep. Ken Buck of Colorado, who serves on the Judiciary panel and has said he does not believe there is evidence to impeach the president, told CNN that the way the House Oversight and Judiciary panels have operated behind the scenes during the three weeks without a speaker proved why an inquiry was not necessary from the beginning.
“That was the reason why I was saying there wasn’t a need to call it an impeachment inquiry because these committees were moving forward,” Buck said. “They continue to move forward, and as they gather evidence, we will see if there’s that connection.”
Judiciary Committee member GOP Rep. Chip Roy of Texas told CNN that the inquiry “might have been paused for a week or so” while Jordan was running for speaker but insisted “we’re doing a lot of work.”
The dueling demands have meant that members may have been less involved, even if committee staff plows ahead. For example, while the Judiciary Committee was conducting a voluntary transcribed interview with California US Attorney Martin Estrada on Tuesday to discuss his involvement in the Hunter Biden criminal case, Jordan was stuck in yet another member forum as the conference was trying to elect a new speaker nominee.
As news broke that Jordan’s panel had secured an unprecedented, closed-door interview with special counsel David Weiss about his ongoing criminal probe into Hunter Biden, the culmination of months of back and forth with the Department of Justice, Jordan was meeting with holdouts who were blocking his bid for speaker.
Still, his allies feel confident that Jordan can rise to the occasion.
“Chairman Jordan is an indispensable leader on the Judiciary Committee,” fellow Judiciary committee member Rep. Ben Cline of Virginia said after Jordan’s bid for speaker ended. “I think Jordan is going to be needed in his role as judiciary chair in the next several months to come.”
Gaetz, who led the effort to oust McCarthy, told CNN that he feels more comfortable having Johnson in the speaker chair handling the inquiry than McCarthy and drew this comparison of the two: “I think the impeachment inquiry would benefit from having a skilled lawyer in the speaker’s office rather than a California lottery winner.”
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