By Richard Cowan and Makini Brice
WASHINGTON (Reuters) -Republican U.S. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy on Tuesday launched an impeachment inquiry into Joe Biden, propelling Congress toward a long-shot effort to remove the Democratic president following two impeachments of former President Donald Trump.
McCarthy's move sets the stage for months of divisive House of Representatives hearings that could distract from lawmakers' efforts to avoid a government shutdown and could supercharge the 2024 presidential race, in which Trump hopes to avenge his 2020 election loss to Biden and win back the White House.
Republicans, who now narrowly control the House, have accused Biden of profiting while he served as vice president from 2009 to 2017 from his son Hunter Biden's foreign business ventures. But a 2020 Senate investigation and several months of digging by House Republicans this year have failed to turn up evidence of wrongdoing by Biden.
"We will go where the evidence takes us," McCarthy said.
Biden previously had mocked Republicans over a possible impeachment and the White House said they have no basis to do so.
"Extreme politics at its worst," White House spokesperson Ian Sams wrote on social media.
The inquiry will focus on Hunter Biden's business dealings in Ukraine, which Republicans have been probing since before they took their current House majority this year. Indeed, Trump's first impeachment was prompted by his requests to Ukraine to probe them as he braced for an election challenge by Biden.
No U.S. president has ever been removed from office by impeachment, but the procedure - once a rarity - has become commonplace.
Many in McCarthy's party were infuriated when the House, then controlled by Democrats, impeached Trump in 2019 and 2021, though he was acquitted both times in the Senate. Some hardline Republicans had said they would try to remove McCarthy as the leader of the House if he did not move ahead with an impeachment effort against Biden.
FEDERAL PROBE OF HUNTER
Republicans have been investigating Hunter Biden's business activities for years, and a federal prosecutor is also pursuing criminal tax and firearms charges.
McCarthy said Republicans have turned up evidence of phone calls, money transfers and other activity that "paints a picture of a culture of corruption" in Biden's family. He did not cite any evidence of misconduct by Biden himself.
McCarthy said he moved to enhance investigators' ability to get information, not reach a pre-determined outcome. "That's all we're doing. America needs the answers," he told reporters.
They will begin their work without a vote from the full House, as was held before Trump's first impeachment. Such a vote is not required, but can add legitimacy to the effort.
It was not clear whether McCarthy had the support of enough of his narrow 222-212 majority for a vote to have succeeded.
Republican Senator Mitt Romney, one of the party's more moderate voices, said he was comfortable with the move.
"The fact that the White House has been singularly silent and has coddled Hunter Biden suggests that an inquiry is not inappropriate," Romney told reporters.
Democrats blasted the inquiry as an effort to shift attention from Republicans' own struggles to govern, as well as the legal woes of Trump, who faces four separate criminal indictments while running for his party's 2024 presidential nomination to face Biden.
"This impeachment is Kevin McCarthy’s shiny new object to distract the public from the fact that the GOP can’t even pass bills to fund the government," Democratic Representative Pramila Jayapal said.
Several hardline Republicans have said they would not vote for spending bills to keep the government funded without an impeachment inquiry. If Congress does not pass those spending bills by the start of the new fiscal year on Oct. 1, large swaths of the U.S. government would have to shut down.
One Republicans who had previously been skeptical of the impeachment push, Representative Ken Buck, said McCarthy's decision to allow the Judiciary, Oversight and Ways and Means committees to pursue an impeachment inquiry would prevent the entire chamber from being paralyzed. "The House should be focusing on spending instead," he said.
Any effort to remove Biden from office would be unlikely to succeed. Even if the House votes to impeach Biden it would almost certainly fail in a subsequent trial in the Democratic-controlled Senate, where a two-thirds vote is required to convict.
Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer called the impeachment inquiry "absurd."
Trump is the only U.S. president to have been impeached twice. In 2019, the House charged Trump with abuse of power and obstruction of Congress after he asked Ukraine to investigate Biden and his son on unsubstantiated corruption accusations.
In 2021, the House impeached Trump on a charge of inciting an insurrection following the attack on the U.S. Capitol by his supporters.
He was acquitted both times in the Senate. Trump denied wrongdoing and portrayed both efforts as a political "witch hunt." He has pressed Republicans to impeach Biden.
Aside from Trump, only two other presidents have been impeached: Bill Clinton in 1998 and Andrew Johnson in 1868. Richard Nixon resigned in 1974 as he faced an impeachment vote.
"The bar for impeachment seems to get lower and lower every year," said Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski.
Public opinion polling has shown many Americans believe Hunter Biden has received special treatment. An August Reuters/Ipsos poll found only 49% of respondents said it was "believable" that Hunter Biden's legal problems were independent of his father's service as president.
(Additional reporting by Moira Warburton, Jason Lange and David Morgan; writing by Andy Sullivan; Editing by Will Dunham, Scott Malone and Daniel Wallis)