By Kevin Freking, Stephen Groves and Farnoush Amiri
Rep. George Santos easily survived a vote Wednesday to expel him from the House as most Republicans and 31 Democrats opted to withhold punishment while both his criminal trial and a House Ethics Committee investigation proceed.
Also on Wednesday evening, the House voted to reject an effort to censure Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., and Democrats called off an effort to censure Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga.
The effort to kick Santos out of the House was led by his fellow New York Republicans, who are anxious to distance themselves from a colleague infamous for fabricating his life story and accused of stealing from donors, lying to Congress and receiving unemployment benefits he did not deserve.
But the resolution failed to gain the required two-thirds vote. Supporters could not even gain a simple majority, with the final vote being 179 for expulsion and 213 against.
To succeed, numerous Republican lawmakers would have had to break ranks with newly elected Speaker Mike Johnson, who has said Santos should get his day in court. Johnson, R-La., also recently told Fox News that if Congress is going to expel members because they are charged with a crime or accused of wrongdoing, “that's a problem.”
Some Democrats also voiced concerns about getting ahead of the Ethics Committee, which issued a rare memo the day before, citing the depth of its investigation with some 40 witnesses contacted and the issuance of 37 subpoenas. It also said the next steps of the committee's investigation would be announced by Nov. 17.
“I feel like due process is still alive. I feel like there's enough colleagues on both sides of the aisle here who understand that,” Santos said after the vote.
Congress has rarely resorted to the most extreme punishment at its disposal. The House has expelled only five members in its history — three during the Civil War and two after their convictions on public corruption charges. It would be groundbreaking for the House to kick out Santos before his case in federal court is resolved.
Some Republicans, however, said they had seen enough of Santos. Rep. Steve Womack, R-Ark., said he believes in due process, but also thinks Santos misrepresented himself to New York voters and they never would have elected him if they had “known the true George Santos.”
“We don’t need the Santos charade all the way through the 2024 election cycle. I think the Congress needs to take action now," Womack said.
The House floor debate over whether to expel Santos was undertaken strictly by members of the New York congressional delegation. On one side, Republican Reps. Anthony D'Esposito, Nick LaLota and Mike Lawler laid out their case for expelling Santos.
“Mr. Santos is a stain on this institution and not fit to serve his constituents in the House of Representatives," D'Esposito said.
On the other side was Santos, who appealed to lawmakers to hold off on expulsion, saying that passing judgment without due process would engender mistrust.
“I'm fighting tooth and nail to clear my name in front of the entire world," Santos said. “It hasn't been easy, but I'm fighting by God's grace.”
The only Democratic lawmaker to speak during the debate was Rep. Dan Goldman. He said Santos should have been expelled in May when Democrats brought an expulsion resolution, and the only reason the New York Republicans were leading the effort now was because Santos “hangs like an albatross around the necks of every single Republican from New York.”
“They don’t care any more about integrity or morality or the reputation of this institution than they did in May when they voted to protect Mr. Santos," Goldman said. "They just care about their reelection in one year when they know that their support for George Santos is going to be a problem.”
The New York Republicans laid out in their expulsion resolution the array of charges Santos is facing in federal court, saying the charges indicated Santos engaged in serious financial fraud throughout his 2022 campaign for the House. The resolution said he deceived voters regarding his biography and is “not fit to serve his constituents as United States Representative.”
“Mr. Santos has said expelling him before he is formally charged and found guilty would create a new precedent in this body, one that could have negative consequences for generations," LaLota said. "Respectfully, Mr. Speaker, I disagree. The consequences and precedents of not expelling him for his lies and fraud has the potential to do far more damage to this institution.”
In May, Republicans under then-Speaker Kevin McCarthy of California sidestepped the Democratic-led effort to expel Santos. While 204 Democrats voted against a motion to refer the matter to the House Ethics Committee, House Republicans stood unified behind the effort that delayed action on Santos’ conduct.
Johnson, who took the speaker's gavel last week, made it clear he would prefer not to oust Santos at this point, despite the many charges against the congressman, as Johnson struggles to control a very slim majority.
“He’s only been charged. He hasn’t been found guilty of anything. We have due process in America," said GOP Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, who opposed the expulsion resolution.
Democrats were also more divided than they were during the previous expulsion effort against Santos.
“Neither the Ethics Committee nor the courts have finished adjudicating this,” tweeted Rep. Jim Himes, D-Conn., who voted against expulsion. “In this country, one is presumed innocent until PROVEN guilty. No exceptions.”
Rep. Marc Molinaro, a New York Republican who supported the expulsion effort, said the delegation would likely raise it again once the Ethics Committee releases the findings of its investigation.
“I suspect the report is going to come public soon, and it’s going to be clear that he should be removed from Congress,” he said.
Santos faces 23 charges in federal court. His trial has been scheduled for September next year. He has pleaded not guilty to those charges.
The House's rejection of an effort to censure Tlaib Tlaib scrapped a Republican attempt to condemn the only Palestinian-American in Congress over her recent rhetoric around the ongoing Israel-Hamas war.
Later yesterday, a measure to move forward with a censure resolution of Tlaib, a punishment one step below expulsion from the House, was dismissed with broad bipartisan support as both parties raised concerns about violating First Amendment rights.
A Democratic effort to in turn censure Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., who had sponsored the Tlaib resolution, was called off in response.
The scheduled votes were among the House's first acts of business after a nearly monthlong gridlock caused by the removal of Republican Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California as speaker.
The agenda of retribution reflects the growing divisiveness of the House, where severe forms of punishment that had long been viewed as an option of last resort, to be triggered only for the most egregious wrongdoing, are quickly becoming routine, often wielded in strikingly partisan ways. While the censure itself carries no practical effect, it leaves a historic footnote that marks a lawmaker’s career.
Greene introduced a censure resolution last week against Tlaib, one of two Muslims in Congress. The resolution accuses Tlaib of “antisemitic activity” after she voiced concern over America's continued role in supplying arms to Israel as it engages in a bloody battle with Hamas following Hamas' deadly Oct. 7 surprise attack.
Greene also falsely accused Tlaib of “leading an insurrection" in the Capitol complex when she participated in a pro-Gaza rally organized by Jewish advocacy groups last month.
Tlaib called Greene's resolution “unhinged” and said it's "deeply Islamophobic and attacks peaceful Jewish anti-war advocates.”
In response to Greene's resolution, House Democrats, led by Rep. Becca Balint of Vermont, introduced a resolution censuring Greene for what they called her record of “racist rhetoric and conspiracy theories." Balint said Greene's resolution to censure Tlaib “is an overt Islamophobic attack on the only Palestinian-American member of Congress.”
Greene has not commented on the resolution to censure her but criticized the dozens of Republicans who voted against moving the Tlaib measure forward.
The vote on Wednesday evening comes as the chamber returns to normal legislative business for the first time in weeks. The abrupt ouster of McCarthy on Oct. 4 brought the House to a standstill, pausing legislative work on the floor, as Republicans struggled over who should replace him.
Now that Speaker Mike Johnson is in charge of the House, following his election to the top position last week, he inherits one of the problems that often afflicted McCarthy: difficulty controlling what happens on the House floor.
Both of the censure resolutions are “privileged,” which is a procedural tool lawmakers can use to bypass leadership and committees and force votes in the House. The stigma around privileged resolutions has eroded, leading more lawmakers to deploy the tactic.
A group of Republicans from New York, for instance, forced the separate vote on whether to expel indicted Santos from the House.
If the resolutions had passed, Greene and Tlaib would have joined a small but growing group of lawmakers who have been censured in the last 20 years.
In June, Republicans voted to censure Democrat Adam Schiff of California for comments he made several years ago about investigations into then-President Donald Trump’s ties to Russia. When the House was under Democratic control, Republican Rep. Paul Gosar of Arizona was censured in 2021 for tweeting an animated video that depicted him striking Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York with a sword. And Democratic Rep. Charlie Rangel of New York was censured in 2010 over serious financial and campaign misconduct.
The House in recent years has also sought to punish members for their words and actions by removing them from their respective committee assignments.
Earlier this year, the House stripped Democratic Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar, who's the other Muslim member of Congress, from her committee assignment on Foreign Affairs for her rhetoric about Israel. And in 2021, Democrats in the majority punished Greene, holding a vote that stripped her of all of her committee assignments for spreading hateful and violent conspiracy theories.