By Steve Holland and Jeff Mason
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Asked about Republicans launching an impeachment inquiry into U.S. President Joe Biden in Congress, Pennsylvania Democratic Senator John Fetterman clutched his head in mock horror and declared "Oh my God, really?" before bursting into laughter.
"Ooooh, don't do it," Fetterman said mockingly on Tuesday, as he walked off.
Democrats have ridiculed the decision by Republican House of Representatives Speaker Kevin McCarthy to launch the inquiry, calling it "absurd," "a joke" and a "shiny new object to distract the public from the fact that the GOP (Republicans) can't even pass bills to fund the government."
But the inquiry could cast a long shadow over Biden's 2024 campaign for re-election.
Even if it turns up no concrete evidence of wrongdoing, the probe should draw heavy media attention, especially in conservative news outlets. This could pull attention away from Biden's 2024 campaign messages on the economy and other issues.For years, Republicans have accused Biden of profiting while he was Barack Obama's vice president from 2009 to 2017 from his son Hunter Biden's foreign business ventures. The impeachment inquiry is likely to focus on Hunter Biden's work as a consultant during that era, though Republicans have until now failed to provide evidence of wrongdoing by the president.
The White House called the inquiry "baseless" and Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Republicans have presented no evidence that Biden did anything wrong "because the president didn’t do anything wrong."
The U.S. Constitution empowers Congress to impeach federal officials including the president for treason, bribery and "other high crimes and misdemeanors." A president can be removed from office if the House approves articles of impeachment by a simple majority and the Senate votes by a two-thirds majority to convict after holding a trial.
While Republicans control the House, Democrats hold a majority in the Senate, making a conviction highly unlikely.
Former President Donald Trump was twice impeached by the then-Democratic-led House but was subsequently acquitted by the Senate. He is the clear front-runner for the Republican nomination to face Biden next year and has been pushing his allies in Congress to impeach his rival.
'SERIOUS POLITICAL PROBLEM'
"This has the potential to be the beginning of a serious political problem and devastating legal one," said Hogan Gidley, a former White House official under Trump. "Starting an impeachment inquiry will hopefully force the media to cover the mountains of evidence linking Joe Biden to Hunter's business dealings in a way that the American people haven't seen yet."
The White House and Democratic lawmakers have said there is no such evidence and point out that Trump has been charged in four criminal cases this year, with trials looming even as he campaigns to regain the presidency.
The impeachment inquiry is unfolding at the same time that a special counsel named by Biden-appointed U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland last month is investigating the president's son after negotiations to revive a plea agreement by Hunter Biden on tax and gun charges fell apart.
Biden's public approval ratings are weak, though the latest Reuters-Ipsos tracking poll found it had ticked up to 42%, its highest level since March. That is slightly above Trump and Obama at this stage in their presidencies, Gallup data showed.
A Yahoo YouGov poll in August showed 45% of Americans believe the Biden family is corrupt, while 53% believe the Trumps are.
Less than half believe Joe Biden did anything illegal and most voters polled in June said Hunter's legal issues had little impact on their plans to vote for or against his father.
McCarthy secured the House speakership in January after surviving a revolt by far-right Republican lawmakers who have been pressuring him to launch the impeachment inquiry.
McCarthy did that on Tuesday without a vote in the House. It was not clear whether he would have had enough support to win such a vote, considering the chamber's narrow 222-212 Republican majority.
The White House sent out a list of comments from Republican House members saying evidence that Biden had done anything wrong had not been found. It also released a previous McCarthy quote in which he said a vote would be needed ahead of an impeachment inquiry otherwise it "would create a process completely devoid of any merit or legitimacy."
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 Joe Biden.
The Biden campaign plans to "aggressively push back on this stuff," said one campaign aide, by stressing that it is aimed at helping Donald Trump’s campaign.
(Reporting by Jeff Mason and Steve Holland; Editing by Heather Timmons, Will Dunham and David Gregorio)