At left, Rep. Kevin McCarthy, a California Republican and House Minority leader. At right, Alejandro Mayorkas, the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security.
Washington CNN  — 

House GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy will be swiftly confronted in a Republican majority with a politically dicey proposition gaining steam within his conference: Launching impeachment proceedings against President Joe Biden’s top official in charge of the southern border.

Senior Republicans and a number of McCarthy allies are signaling little appetite – for now – in immediately impeaching Biden himself, despite the push among a handful of far-right Republicans seeking to remove the sitting President from office if their party takes the House in next month’s midterms.

But more than a dozen of former President Donald Trump’s top congressional allies – and several Republicans close to the leadership – told CNN that the focus instead should be on targeting Alejandro Mayorkas, the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, and that a new GOP majority should hold impeachment proceedings over the problems at the border. Senior GOP sources close to leadership say it’s a matter of when – not if – House Republicans initiate an impeachment inquiry and that Mayorkas has become their No. 1 target, with their base itching for revenge after Trump’s two impeachments.

Impeaching a Cabinet official has only happened once in US history, and the issue would become moot if Mayorkas were to resign. But talk of impeaching Mayorkas already has prompted internal pushback among some veteran Republicans who are skeptical that their policy disputes with the Cabinet secretary meet the bar of charging him with committing “high crimes and misdemeanors.”

Yet as they have railed over the migrant crisis in their push to regain the House, a number of leading Republicans fully endorse the idea and acknowledge it’s one that McCarthy will have to deal with if he wins the speakership following the midterms.

“Mayorkas deserves (impeachment) for sure, because we no longer have a border,” said Republican Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, a McCarthy ally who is in line to chair the powerful House Judiciary Committee, which oversees impeachment proceedings.

But while Jordan personally supports the idea, he believes it will be “a conference decision,” saying, “I think we’ll all sit down. Kevin is open to sitting down and figuring out what we do.”

Added Rep. Lauren Boebert of Colorado, a freshman GOP firebrand who has already endorsed impeachment articles for both Biden and Mayorkas: “Secretary Mayorkas should be a priority. Joe Biden’s his own demise.”

Yet McCarthy must also contend with a larger yet less vocal group of moderate and mainstream Republicans, who are wary of the potential political blowback over such a move and warning their colleagues not to weaponize the most powerful oversight tool at their disposal.

GOP Rep. Steve Womack of Arkansas said Republicans “should focus on policy” and “leave some of the other more emotional topics for another day.”

“The risk is if people lose faith in the ability of Congress to even do its basic function,” Womack said of voter blowback for impeaching Mayorkas. “The people that I talk to from all stripes tell me they want a Congress that works – not a Congress that is preoccupied with kind of revenge-type agendas. Because then a lot of other things (that) need to happen don’t get to happen. And then that hurts the country.”

So far, McCarthy has carefully sidestepped impeachment questions, insisting Republicans are not going to pre-determine the outcome but are willing to go wherever the facts and the law lead them.

Yet McCarthy has not shut the door on the idea either, particularly when it comes to Mayorkas. And when pressed by CNN on whether Mayorkas is vulnerable to impeachment in a GOP-led House, he replied: “What happens at the border is above everything else.”

Democrats argue the talk is politically motivated and have instead called for Republicans to revisit immigration legislation that they say would alleviate the influx at the border. Biden’s Homeland Security Department has strongly defended its handling of the migrant crisis at the border, and said Mayorkas is solely focused on his mission at the agency — and has no intention of stepping down.

“Secretary Mayorkas is proud to advance the noble mission of this Department, support its extraordinary workforce, and serve our country,” a DHS spokesman said in a statement. “He has no plan to resign.”

Inside the strategy shift

How McCarthy handles the impeachment drive from his right flank will be a defining moment of his potential speakership. Those calls — while doomed in the Senate — may be difficult, if not impossible, to resist if McCarthy is working with narrow margins in the House, and those demands are only going to grow louder in the immediate aftermath of a potential GOP takeover next month.

Some lawmakers think McCarthy may be more amenable to impeaching Mayorkas than Biden, describing it as a release valve for the inevitable pressure from his right. Going after Mayorkas, even if it’s a fruitless endeavor that would almost certainly fail in the Senate, would also force more attention on immigration and the border, two issues that rile up the GOP base and that Republicans are eager to keep in the spotlight.

Indeed, part of the reason for the shift in strategy: These Republicans believe they’ll have an easier time convincing McCarthy and their GOP colleagues to go along with impeaching a Biden political appointee versus a President who was elected to his position, a more politically tenable move that still would throw red meat to the base, according to GOP sources familiar with their thinking.

And of all the various impeachment articles already filed by House Republicans, the resolution calling for Mayorkas to be removed from his post has by far the most cosponsors, with 31 GOP lawmakers backing the effort thus far – including Rep. Yvette Herrell of New Mexico, who is in a competitive reelection race, and Rep. Kevin Hern of Oklahoma, who is poised to take over the conservative Republican Study Committee next year.

“There is a greater appetite among Republicans to impeach Mayorkas,” said conservative Rep. Bob Good of Virginia, a member of the hardline House Freedom Caucus. “The reason is, in my opinion, some don’t have the stomach for impeaching Biden or are fearful of the political impact of impeaching Biden. So, (the thinking is) here’s a consolation prize.”

Republicans say there’s ground to impeach Mayorkas over allegedly failing to maintain operational control of the border, which they argue caused an influx of fentanyl and illegal immigration, while accusing him of standing in the way of more stringent border controls like constructing Trump’s border wall. One GOP congressman, Rep. Chip Roy of Texas, accused Mayorkas of lying to him under oath.

The DHS has begun staffing up and taking other steps to prepare for potential investigations and impeachment proceedings in a GOP-led House, according to sources familiar with the situation. But the agency has defended how it has handled the situation at the border, while arguing they’re dealing with a broken immigration system.

The Biden administration is still implementing a Trump-era pandemic emergency rule, known as Title 42, that allows authorities to turn away migrants at the US-Mexico border following a court order earlier this year. But that authority has limits, and border officials have been overwhelmed by shifting demographics – many of the migrants are now from Venezuela, Cuba, and Nicaragua.

The department maintains that the border is secure, but the change in people arriving at the US southern border has posed a steep challenge given in part frosty relations that largely bar the US from removing those nationalities. DHS has also noted that more individuals encountered at the border will be removed or expelled this year than any previous year, while the agency has stopped over 10,000 pounds of fentanyl from coming into the country during the first six months of this year, though the majority of fentanyl drug smuggling attempts occur at ports of entry.

If Mayorkas were to be impeached, he would join the ranks of William Belknap, the secretary of war, who was the only Cabinet official ever to be impeached of high crimes and misdemeanors by the House before being acquitted by the Senate in 1876, according to congressional records.

Some Republicans don’t think it would be the right move to have Mayorkas meet the same fate.

“I don’t think it’d be a very wise decision, and I don’t think (premature impeachment talk) would be appropriate to engage in,” said veteran Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma, who is the ranking member of the House Rules Committee.

“Even talking about that impeachment right now is irresponsible, because it’s a very serious thing. And it’s gotta be handled seriously.” said moderate Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania, who sits on the House Intelligence Committee. “I felt the same way about the previous attempts as well. We have to restore it to what it was always intended to be, which is a last resort.”

Republicans setting stage for impeachment inquiry

Regardless of whether Republicans end up going the impeachment route, there will be aggressive oversight of Mayorkas in a GOP-led House, as well as fierce funding fights over border security.

Of the more than 500 preservation letters that House Republicans have sent to the Biden administration, a substantial chunk of them have been focused on the border, according to sources familiar with all the requests.

Republicans are seeking more information from the Department of Homeland Security about who is coming across the border; the status of the border wall; the administration’s plan to stem the flow of fentanyl and other drugs coming across the border; and how they define “operational control” of the border.

House Minority Whip Steve Scalise, a Republican from Louisiana, quipped to CNN that Mayorkas “might have a reserved parking spot (at the Capitol) he’s gonna be up here so much.” But Scalise stopped short of calling for his impeachment.

While hardliners aren’t backing away from saying Biden ought to be removed from office, they think they should primarily direct their energy toward Mayorkas.

“I believe Mayorkas has committed high crimes and misdemeanors. You might see some (impeachment pushes) on Biden, but certainly Mayorkas, what he has done, has just been unconscionable,” said Rep. Andy Biggs of Arizona, the former chairman of the House Freedom Caucus. “I’m pushing hard.”

“It seems to me Secretary Mayorkas is deserving of a look (on impeachment),” Rep. Scott Perry of Pennsylvania, the current Freedom Caucus chief, said last week. “Let’s talk about it in 40 days.”

Rep. Brian Babin of Texas, who co-chairs the Border Security Caucus, told CNN that Mayorkas “certainly deserves” to be removed from office. Earlier this year, he spearheaded a letter along with GOP Rep. Jim Banks of Indiana that put Mayorkas on notice – and it was signed by every member of Republican leadership.

“We didn’t use the word impeach, but it was pretty plain: if you don’t do your job, you could be removed from office,” Babin said. “It’s going to be something we look at.”

Some hardliners are signaling they could back impeachment but they say they’re not there yet.

“I think that’s something that we ought to consider,” said Roy, the Texas Republican. “But impeachment cases are something you build.”

CNN’s Priscilla Alvarez and Morgan Rimmer contributed to this report.