A resolution to remove indicted (alleged) huckster slash first-term Congress member Rep. George Santos, R-N.Y., was teed up and brought to the floor Wednesday evening through a quirk of the House rules that prevented Republican leadership from blocking it entirely. It was the first time in more than 20 years that the House of Representatives had a chance to expel one of its members.
But rather than holding a straight up or down vote on the expulsion, Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., lined up his caucus to instead refer the resolution booting Santos to the Ethics Committee. The party line vote, with all Republicans in favor and all but a handful of Democrats voting against, was definitely not the ideal outcome — but as much as I hate to admit it, for once I think McCarthy’s instincts were correct. And I think that the delay will only make Santos’ removal all the more likely.
In sum, Santos’ greatest strength is simply that he’s there.
Santos was arrested last week after being indicted on 13 federal charges, including wire fraud, money laundering, theft of public funds and making materially false statements to the House. (He pleaded not guilty to all charges and then returned to the House immediately after his arraignment.) In effect, the privileged resolution was intended to “put Republicans on the record” on where they stand on Santos, Rep. Robert Garcia, D-Calif., the bill’s sponsor, told reporters on Tuesday after introducing the measure.
But it’s telling that getting their votes on the record was the stated goal rather than actually removing Santos from his seat. Expulsion has a very high bar under the Constitution, requiring two-thirds of the body to vote in favor. And although almost every Republican in the New York delegation has called on Santos to resign, even if they’d all voted in favor of expulsion, the yeas would still be far short of the required supermajority.
The New York delegation was still enough of a wild card for GOP leadership to have McCarthy convene a meeting with them on Tuesday to lay out their strategy, Politico reported. The Ethics Committee referral bid was presented as the least divisive option in the caucus between tabling the resolution altogether and allowing the vote to go forward as Democrats hoped. McCarthy also reportedly framed the choice as fitting with a modern precedent of waiting for a criminal conviction or an Ethics Committee report before attempting expulsion.
It was enough to convince the full caucus to stick together. The same was mostly true on the other side of the aisle, despite some reported grumbling from Democrats behind closed doors. While younger Democrats especially were in favor of trying to force the vote on the resolution itself, some senior members thought “forcing an expulsion vote could set a bad precedent,” according to Politico. It doesn’t hurt that I’m not sure how the Democrats would have been able to prevail in blocking McCarthy’s punt when the GOP was willing to vote in lockstep. The 221-204 vote was even more skewed in the end because the five Democrats on the Ethics Committee voted “present” — a tactic that their GOP counterparts didn’t follow — as did two members from swing districts.
It feels unlikely that either the Ethics Committee or a jury will acquit Santos of the charges filed against him, a sentiment that Rep. Nick Langworthy, R-N.Y., reflected after the vote. “We all know where this ends,” Langworthy told Semafor. “George Santos won’t be in Congress for long.” And McCarthy himself noted to reporters on Tuesday that the House panel “could come back faster than a court case could.”
I believe that time will not make congressional Republicans any more inclined to protect Santos
In fairness to critics of the referral vote, the Ethics Committee could wind up producing a report before Santos goes on trial — but that’s not exactly in line with the reputation that the committee has developed for not being particularly speedy. Indeed, the committee has been working since March and Santos has said that he has not been called to appear before them yet. And Rep. Dan Goldman, D-N.Y., a former federal prosecutor, told reporters on Wednesday that it was all too likely that the panel will defer to the Justice Department’s criminal investigation until it concludes.
Still, I believe that time will not make congressional Republicans any more inclined to protect Santos. Yes, he’s been a solid vote in a slim majority; if the red wave predicted last year had materialized, leaving McCarthy with a larger cushion than his current five vote majority, Santos would likely already be packing his sweaters and blazers to return to Long Island. He’s also been a headache for the caucus without the trappings of seniority to endear himself to his colleagues. His already announced re-election bid could distract from other races next year should he actually manage to remain in office. He brings nothing to the table as far as political heft with a certain constituency or any broader national appeal among the base. He’s already stepped down from his committee assignments, leaving him unable to participate in most legislative efforts. In sum, Santos’ greatest strength is simply that he’s there.
In the end, I am glad that Garcia put forward the expulsion resolution in the first place. I firmly believe that Santos deserves to be expelled from the House. But while putting Republicans on the record as defending Santos would have been great, the question is whether Democrats care more about the talking point or building the best chance for the alleged fraudster to vacate his seat.
As much as McCarthy’s punt feels frustrating on its face, Santos’ expulsion will be much more likely in the future than it was Wednesday evening. And for all the derision around the term as a political metaphor, sometimes when you’re in a terrible position, a punt really is the right play for a coach to call.
CORRECTION (May 19, 2023, 2:50 p.m. ET): A previous version of this article misstated the last name of a New York congressman. He is Dan Goldman, not Goldberg.