This week, amid the fights about an aid package to support Israel and spending bills to keep the government open, the House staged an unusual vote to expel Rep George Santos (R-NY). This was the second attempt from the lower chamber to oust the embattled Republican legislator, who is under federal investigation.
For those who might have forgotten, earlier this year, a coterie of progressive Democrats – led by Reps Robert Garcia (D-CA), Ritchie Torres (D-NY) and Daniel Goldman (D-NY) – introduced a resolution to kick out Mr Santos after numerous reports that the congressman made up large parts of his resume.
That was likely never going to pass largely and the Democrats mostly just wanted to make Mr Santos an albatross around the neck of Republicans. For his part, then-House speaker Kevin McCarthy essentially let Mr Santos continue to serve despite the fact many in the House GOP conference want him gone.
But with Mr McCarthy gone, this new resolution was put forward by New York Republican freshmen, including Reps Mike Lawler, Anthony D’Esposito, Marc Molinaro, Brandon Williams and Nick LaLota. Last year, these Republicans, along with Mr Santos, surprised many when they flipped House seats in upstate New York and Long Island in part thanks to Democratic Gov Kathy Hochul’s weak underperformance in the state.
All six Republicans represent a district that voted for President Joe Biden in 2020. That means they have to do their best to set themselves apart from the rest of the GOP. Tellingly, these Biden district New Yorkers split on making Jim Jordan speaker, with Mr Lawler being a steadfast supporter of GOP leadership, while Mr LaLota and D’Esposito cast their vote for Ms Hochul’s GOP challenger last year, former congressman Lee Zeldin.
Conversely, Mr Santos has done little to distinguish himself from the GOP rank and file to show he is worth keeping around. He refused to support House Majority Leader Steve Scalise for speaker and instead backed Mr Jordan during all three votes on the floor.
Tellingly, these Republicans let fly withering critiques of Mr Santos. Mr D’Esposito, whose New York 4th district is adjacent to Mr Santos’s New York 3rd, has perhaps the most risk from Mr Santos remaining in Congress. In turn, he said that Mr Santos “was elected under false pretenses” and said that he could not represent Nassau County and specifically noted how he lied about his grandparents escaping the Holocaust.
“Despite my desire to see Mr Santos no longer serving in Congress, I believed that this would be the quickest way to rid him from the institution,” he said.
Mr Lawler said that while Mr Santos will have his day in court, the House had enough information with his campaign treasurer pleading guilty and also criticised him for lying about his mother dying during the 9/11 terrorist attacks, a sore spot as a New Yorker.
“This is not something you joke about, you lie about. It is unfit,” he said.
Similarly, Mr D’Esposito responded to the critiques that expelling Mr Santos would set a bad precedent since he has not yet been convicted of a crime.
“If we’re going to set a new precedent today, that we’re against lying fraudsters coming to the House of Representatives, well then I’m all for that precedent,” he said.
But Mr Santos’s Empire State colleagues largely only moved to boot him out as a means to save face. By filing to expel Mr Santos, they likely knew that they would not reach the two-thirds majority needed to remove him.
By filing the motion and arguing it on the floor, they could say they tried and use it as a campaign talking point back home so they did not risk getting washed away in a more favourable election climate for Democrats.
Ultimately, the House voted against expelling Mr Santos, with more Democrats – 31 to be exact – voting against expelling him compared to 24 Republicans who voted for it.
That also helps newly-installed House Speaker Mike Johnson, whom the New York Republicans all backed. As the party leader in the House, a speaker has to allow endangered members to vote in ways that they can brag about in their home district without damaging the body as a whole.
But by avoiding an expulsion of Mr Santos, Mr Johnson doesn’t have to worry about reducing his already slim margin. Remember, Republicans have only 221 votes, meaning he can only afford four Republicans to break from him at any given time.
The expulsion vote for Mr Santos in turn wound up becoming a cynical ploy: it became nothing more than a face-saving exercise to keep Republicans in their seat, a handful of Democrats played too clever by half by voting to keep him in his seat and Mr Johnson got to keep his accummulated power. Welcome to Washington.