The House on Friday took the remarkable step of expelling George Santos (R-N.Y.), shrinking the GOP’s already thin majority and depriving Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) of a precious vote as the chamber charges toward a series of legislative landmines.
And the party’s math problems may be poised to get worse.
Rep. Bill Johnson (R-Ohio) is headed for the exits to lead Youngstown State University early next year, and there’s swirling speculation that former Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) will quit Congress early after the House deposed him in historic and embarrassing fashion after just nine months with the gavel.
Republicans were quick to downplay the significance of their midseason loss of Santos. But with the GOP conference already fiercely divided over a host of high-profile issues — and with deadlines looming on must-pass legislation to fund the government and avert a shutdown — the loss of the seat could haunt the Speaker and his top deputies, all of whom voted to keep the scandal-plagued New Yorker in Congress.
“Obviously, you want as much of a majority as you can get,” said Rep. Buddy Carter (R-Ga.), who voted to remove Santos. “But that needs to be separate from this issue of who was just expelled. That is an entirely separate issue that should be outside of the discussion on the majority.”
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Santos’s removal has immediately trimmed the Republicans’ four-seat advantage down to three — a wafer-thin cushion that leaves Johnson, just weeks into his Speakership, little room for error as he attempts to steer the party’s conservative agenda through the second half of the 118th Congress with a deeply divided conference.
A number of Republicans said the loss of Santos would be a minor factor in confronting that task.
“We’re back to where we were earlier this week, before Celeste Maloy was sworn in,” said Rep. Mike Lawler (R-N.Y.), referring to the newly seated Utah Republican.
Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.) offered a similar assessment shortly after Santos’s ejection.
“We’ve got a razor-thin margin. It’s more so now, but it’s really not much of a difference,” he said. “When we have issues — difficulty — moving things forward, it’s not usually a margin of three. It’s usually much bigger. I mean, it’s not helpful. But that’s not a factor.”
Still, the cumulative effect of Santos’s expulsion, Bill Johnson’s eventual exit and a potential tap out from McCarthy would create undeniable new challenges for Republicans, putting them behind the eight ball as they look to keep the government open early next year, send aid for foreign allies and push through parts of their conservative policy agenda before November’s elections, when the House majority is back up for grabs.
The timeline, however, is up in the air.
Bill Johnson is set to begin his tenure as president of Ohio’s Youngstown State University in mid-March, but he could leave Washington earlier. McCarthy’s case is a crapshoot: He vowed, after losing the gavel, to seek another term. But news reports suggest he’s ready to leave, and he recently confirmed that he’s weighing that decision.
“If I decide to run again, I have to know in my heart, I’m giving 110 percent. I have to know that I want to do that. I also have to know if I’m gonna walk away, that I’m gonna be fine with walking away. And so I’m really taking this time now,” McCarthy said at The New York Times DealBook summit this week, calling the decision a “gut call.”
“I’m gonna take the time to make the right decision for my district and for myself,” he added.
The filing deadline to run for the House in California is Dec. 8; McCarthy’s decision on putting his name on the ballot for next year will hint at his future plans.
Then there’s the special election to fill Santos’s seat, which could either permanently deprive Republicans of the ousted lawmaker’s vote or keep the district red. Political headwinds are trending in Democrats’ direction: President Biden carried New York’s 3rd Congressional District by roughly 8 percentage points in 2020, and the Cook Political Report rates the area a “Republican toss up” for 2024.
New York Gov. Kathy Hochul (D) will call a special election within 10 days of Santos’s expulsion, and the election is required to take place between 70 and 80 days later, according to state law, teeing up a February or March election day.
The possibility of losing a vote in the slim GOP majority — during a session when Republicans have struggled to unite — loomed over the Santos debate for months. And while Speaker Johnson and other GOP leaders said their support for Santos this week hinged on their fear of setting a bad precedent governing expulsions, Johnson had acknowledged in October that the impact on the Republicans’ numerical advantage was weighing on his mind.
“Here’s the reality, Sean: We have a four-seat majority in the House,” Johnson told Fox News’s Sean Hannity when asked about Santos shortly after winning the gavel. “It is possible that that number may be reduced even more in the coming weeks and months. And so we’ll have what may be the most razor-thin majority in the history of the Congress. We have no margin for error.”
The numbers could be crucial as Congress steps into delicate debates in the coming weeks over controversial legislation, including bills to fund the government and provide emergency aid to the country’s war-torn allies of Ukraine and Israel.
Some lawmakers, however, rejected the idea that political implications may have factored into their decision on Friday’s historic expulsion, arguing that there should be — and in their case, was — a line of demarcation between politics and ethics.
“I don’t make my decisions — and I didn’t make my decision today — based on what impact it has on the majority of the House of Representatives. My god, that is absolutely unforgivable to make a decision on a matter of character based on what it’s gonna do to your majority,” Rep. Steve Womack (R-Ark.) said Friday.
“That’s a terrible excuse. I would be embarrassed if that were my excuse,” he continued. “So I voted to expel him, notwithstanding the fact that it moves us a little bit closer to, you know, perhaps losing this majority. But that’s not at issue here. The issue is his character.”