House Democrats wrangled internally on Wednesday over whether to try to stop Speaker Kevin McCarthy from punting on a bid to expel George Santos from Congress.
The tensions surfaced during a closed-door Democratic caucus meeting, hours before Republicans prevailed in a vote to quash Rep. Robert Garcia’s (D-Calif.) privileged resolution ejecting the indicted Santos from his seat. Some Democrats argued in favor of of blocking McCarthy’s push to refer the Garcia plan to the House Ethics panel — which, had it succeeded, would have forced a full House vote on booting the scandal-plagued New York Republican — according to two people familiar with the situation.
After all, those Democrats reasoned, the whole point of Garcia’s push is squeezing the House GOP to go on the record protecting Santos, their fabrication-happy first-term member who faces 13 counts of federal charges.
“I think we should find out where members stand on this indicted member of Congress,” said Rep. Yvette Clarke (D-N.Y.), among those who pushed the caucus to pursue a full House vote to expel Santos. “I think we need to definitely make sure that our concerns are registered through a vote.”
But other House Democrats took a different view, according to both people who addressed the closed-door meeting on condition of anonymity. Some more senior Democrats, whom both people interviewed declined to name, argued that forcing an expulsion vote could set a bad precedent — echoing McCarthy’s position.
The Democratic split over how to handle the Santos vote illustrates the enduring generational divide within a caucus that’s growing younger and more progressive after decades of leadership by an octogenarian trio. Just because House Democrats have new leaders this Congress, however, doesn’t mean their senior members’ counsel doesn’t hold weight.
The caucus didn’t formally whip the vote on Garcia’s proposal.
Ultimately, House Republicans stayed unified as they voted to refer the Garcia measure to Ethics. The final tally was 220-202, with seven Democrats voting present. While five of the Democratic present votes came from members of the Ethics panel, two others joined them: swing-seat Reps. Marie Gluesenkamp Pérez (D-Wash.) and Chrissy Houlahan (D-Pa.).
Santos told reporters after the vote that he approved of the referral to the Ethics panel.
“This is the appropriate way to do this. I think that this was the right decision for all of us and I look forward to continuing to defend myself,” he said. Shortly after, he cut off his remarks when progressive Reps. Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.) and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) started to heckle him, shouting “resign!”
The spectacle continued, with Bowman getting into an argument with Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) before Ocasio-Cortez intervened and pulled Bowman away.
Republicans who serve on the ethics panel did not join their Democratic counterparts in voting present, with some arguing their vote was a referral and not a judgment.
Some of Santos’ fiercest GOP critics publicly endorsed McCarthy’s plan to move the matter to the famously slow-moving ethics committee, which is already conducting an investigation into Santos’ campaign-trail fabrications and finances.
“Moving this expulsion resolution to the ethics committee, in an expedited fashion, will get George Santos out of Congress as quickly as possible. And I think that that is necessary,” Rep. Marc Molinaro (R-N.Y.) said in an interview. “I expect that the Ethics Committee will expedite the hearing.”
First-term Rep. Brandon Williams (R-N.Y.), who has called on Santos to resign, sounded a similar note in a statement Wednesday.
To many Democrats, though, sending the matter to the Ethics panel was the effective equivalent of tabling the issue altogether. And they would only need a simple majority of the House to vote down McCarthy’s efforts to refer the bill to committee — a much more plausible ask — while ousting Santos would require a two-thirds majority.
Democratic Caucus Chair Rep. Pete Aguilar (D-Calif.) made the case to his California colleagues in a closed-door meeting Wednesday for voting against sending the measure to the ethics panel. It would be the “easy way out” for the speaker, he said in an interview after the meeting.
“He doesn’t have the votes to table,” Aguilar said of McCarthy. “And so he’s trying to send this to Ethics to give his members who have called for George Santos to resign … an opportunity to vote with the team.”
McCarthy and GOP leaders acted quickly to help dissuade their handful of anti-Santos New York Republicans from any temptation to vote for Garcia’s expulsion plan. During a private Tuesday meeting first reported by POLITICO, McCarthy laid out the process to the Empire State’s GOP delegation, arguing that the ethics panel referral makes more sense than tabling the expulsion measure or allowing it to come to the floor for a vote.
Yet, even after McCarthy defeated House Democrats’ push to expel Santos, his conference’s problematic prevaricator is poised to cause more headaches soon.
The speaker told reporters Wednesday that the ethics panel could “come back faster than a court case could” with recommended Santos sanctions.
“I would like to refer this to Ethics. I’ll have a conversation with Hakeem. I would like the ethics committee to move rapidly on this,” McCarthy said.
Sarah Ferris and Meredith Lee Hill contributed to this report.
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