What's Really Behind Kevin McCarthy's Announcement of an Impeachment Inquiry

This article is part of The D.C. Brief, TIME’s politics newsletter. Sign up here to get stories like this sent to your inbox.

Lacking the votes to move forward with an impeachment inquiry into President Joe Biden, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy on Tuesday made the unilateral and unusual decision to plow forward with committee-level probes into alleged influence peddling, corruption, and stonewalling.

Put simply, McCarthy has triggered a process to remove Biden from power without even having sufficient votes in his own backyard to get started. Instead, he’s just going to wing it and hope no one questions the legitimacy of a process that, when last launched against one of his own without an on-the-record vote, he decried as a political stunt.

McCarthy’s latest cave to his far-right flank reveals three truths: his speakership is in far more peril than folks outside the Beltway understand; a minority of his caucus are continuing to dictate the terms of his agenda; and a looming spending standoff is now even more likely to result in a shutdown that could trip up the global economy more seriously than widely appreciated.

Back in January, McCarthy took 15 tries to snag the speakership and he landed at the price of allowing any single member of his caucus the power to call for booting him at any given time. As such, he is constantly at the mercy of his loud and excitable fringe, and they’re not exactly enthralled with the House right now. That leaves the heavy lift of funding the government up in the air with just 11 working days to go until the feds have to face a shutdown because they’re out of cash.

In announcing this next step, McCarthy curiously framed the launch as necessary because he had heard allegations—not evidence—of malfeasance during Biden’s days as Vice President under Barack Obama. In a nuanced way, McCarthy’s pivot means lawmakers no longer have to pretend their work to ferret out alleged corruption in the Biden universe is linked to hypothetical legislation but rather expressly for the political goal of kicking the President to the curb—an effort that has never before been successful but nonetheless remains a protected option in the American system of perpetual accountability.

Both Bill Clinton and Donald Trump took full votes of the House to launch inquiries against them. This time, despite the rancor from the far right, it’s not clear that there is even sufficient support among the 222 Republican House members to get off the starting line. Vulnerable Republicans and hardcore reactionaries alike reacted sourly to the announcement, meaning McCarthy’s gamble may have already proven a loser even before he gets back to home base. And in the Senate, not even the most partisan conservative held any hope that this was anything more than performative acting meant to appease the party base that was promised impeachment but never guaranteed how it would end.

At its heart, the allegations against Biden are that, as Vice President, he leveraged his clout to help his son’s business interests. Hill Republicans concede they don’t have a smoking gun but do insist that they have enough to merit further investigation, which McCarthy’s marching orders give them some cover. In continuing to ask the questions, Hill Republicans are hoping they can dig out something that retroactively justifies a whole lot of time and money spent looking for the proof that, in a criminal setting, would have been required by now to sustain such a sideshow.

“House Republicans have uncovered serious and credible allegations into President Biden’s conduct,” McCarthy said. “Taken together, these allegations paint a picture of a culture of corruption.”

Impeachment, by its nature in the present, is a political affair. Both of Trump’s impeachments were colored in the House by blinding partisanship. This inching toward an impeachment of Biden is no different. Whereas then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi famously held out as long as she could against the first impeachment of Trump, McCarthy seems eager to chuck the restraint in exchange for his flank’s support.

Still, that allyship may not be there. McCarthy’s conservative vanguard didn’t trust him at the start, had doubts about his debt-ceiling deal, and sees the looming shutdown as never far from center stage. Even still, the olive branch hasn’t proven sufficient, and the Freedom Caucus is still agitating for faster and more definitive action—even without any shred of credulity that they have the votes to pass much of anything.

McCarthy’s hold on the Speaker’s gavel is as weak as it’s ever been, but his team will tell you he’s been here before and knows the shaky grip. Despite a razor-thin majority, a cranky and fractured coalition, and a dodgy relationship with his party’s indicted leader off at Bedminster, N.J., McCarthy somehow has remained atop the GOP pecking order in the House. Predictions of his fall have proven, to this point, premature. His durability is one that defies history and gravity alike, but is worthy of respect. McCarthy has lasted to this point as a survivor, often despite his best efforts to fumble. Still, luck is a finite resource, and McCarthy keeps testing his. The choice to greenlight impeachment probes—and doing so without a vote—is yet another pressure test of his good fortune.

Make sense of what matters in Washington. Sign up for the D.C. Brief newsletter.

Write to Philip Elliott at philip.elliott@time.com.