Santos drama puts House Republicans in political bind

A resignation could hurt the GOP's control, give seat to a Democrat.

January 13, 2023, 5:14 AM

House Republicans are in a bind over whether and how to punish embattled Rep. George Santos, a lawmaker who both attracts nonstop controversy and holds a critical seat in the narrowly divided chamber.

The New York Republican, who has lied about or embellished his business experience, education, religion, athleticism and more, is swatting away calls for his resignation from Long Island Republicans and a growing number of his GOP congressional colleagues -- seven so far.

It's leaving Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., in a conundrum over whether to keep Santos in the fold and face ceaseless questions over his conduct -- or banish him with barely any votes to spare given his party's slim majority.

PHOTO: Rep. George Santos, R-N.Y., waits for the start of a session in the House chamber as the House meets for the fourth day to convene the 118th Congress, Jan. 6, 2023, in Washington.
Rep. George Santos, R-N.Y., waits for the start of a session in the House chamber as the House meets for the fourth day to convene the 118th Congress, Jan. 6, 2023, in Washington.
Alex Brandon/AP

"His vote is needed but is it really worth it?" one House Republican, granted anonymity to candidly discuss the debate over Santos, lamented when asked about the pickle. "After this s***show, if we keep this up, we won’t have a majority in two years."

Faced with the choice of choosing a smaller House margin or a bigger headache, it appears that most lawmakers are publicly opting for the headache, claiming his fate is out of their hands.

"Well, that's something between George and his constituents. So, I think that is what it is. He's gonna figure that out with people back home," Rep. Byron Donalds, R-Fla., told reporters Wednesday of the political storm around Santos.

PHOTO: U.S. Speaker Kevin McCarthy speaks at a news conference in Statuary Hall of the U.S. Capitol Building, Jan. 12, 2023 in Washington, DC.
U.S. Speaker Kevin McCarthy speaks at a news conference in Statuary Hall of the U.S. Capitol Building, Jan. 12, 2023 in Washington, DC.
Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

"When you have your local party saying something so vocally that is not a helpful sign, but we are going to leave this up to regular normative process that is both traditional for this body and under the law," Rep. Patrick McHenry, R-N.C., added, referencing the push from the Nassau County GOP for Santos to step down.

McCarthy and other House leaders have said they plan to handle the issue internally for now and maintain he won't be kicked out given that has not yet been convicted of any particular crime -- a comment in line with House GOP tradition that also helps protect the party's margins.

"He's got a long way to go to earn trust. But the one thing I do know is you apply the Constitution equal to all Americans. The voters of his district have elected him. He is seated. He is part of the Republican conference. There are concerns with him, so he will go before [the House Ethics Committee]. If anything is found to be wrong, he will be held accountable exactly as anyone else in this body would be," McCarthy said Thursday.

Possibly adding to Republicans' reticence to nudge Santos out or even remove him is New York's laws regarding how to handle a House vacancy, given New York Democratic Gov. Kathy Hochul's extensive leeway over when to schedule a special election.

Hochul would have no deadline on when to pick a date for a special election, allowing her to let local Democrats recruit a challenger and trigger the race at an opportune moment -- something the party is suggesting it's planning for.

"If there is a vacancy, we will be ready with a candidate, and we will win back that district," said Nassau County Democratic Party Chair Jay Jacobs.

Republicans, too, note that the possibility of a lengthy vacancy in a chamber with a tissue-thin margin could play a role in deciding how much pressure to apply to Santos.

Hochul's power is "very broad," said Tom Doherty, a former aide to former Gov. George Pataki, R-N.Y. "And that then becomes a very political situation of, when is the best time for that election for Democrats to take place? That'll be a consideration for her."

Even if a special election were held soon after a hypothetical resignation, Santos' seat, anchored in Long Island and parts of Queens, is highly competitive, and a Democratic win would cut into McCarthy's wiggle room even more deeply than just a vacancy.

"You would fully expect this to be a competitive race, and it's gonna be more competitive for Republicans now because of the fact that you have Santos, who is sort of tarnished," Doherty said.

"It's a headache on a number of levels. It's a headache because the speaker and his people are going to have to answer about this constantly. But Republicans have a very, very slim margin. So, he needs every vote for the time being."

Amid the debate over his fate, Santos is insistent that he'll serve his full two-year term -- and suggested Thursday he could even run for reelection.

"I wish well, all of their opinions, but I was elected by 142,000 people. Until those same 142,000 people tell me they don't want me, we'll find out in two years," Santos said on Steve Bannon's "War Room" podcast, which was guest-hosted by Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla.

PHOTO: Rep. George Santos leaves the U.S. Capitol, Jan. 12, 2023 in Washington, DC.
Rep. George Santos leaves the U.S. Capitol, Jan. 12, 2023 in Washington, DC.
Win Mcnamee/Getty Images

Doherty suggested House Republicans' narrow margin hands Santos leverage, which he could use to beat back pressure on him.

"The only thing that he's holding on to at the moment is a congressional seat that a lot of people want and that he recognizes is important because Kevin McCarthy and the Republicans in D.C. need the seat," he said.

Still, the maelstrom is only escalating.

Santos' campaign and finances are the subject of several investigations now, ramping up his legal risk.

And with new falsehoods being reported nearly daily and a press corps following his every step in Washington, cracks have started emerging in Republicans' willingness to kick the can down the road, both in New York and Congress.

A group of Nassau County Republicans Wednesday panned Santos' exaggerations and called on him to step down, with Nassau GOP Chair Joseph Cairo saying at a press conference Wednesday that "he disgraced the House of Representatives, and we do not consider him our congressman."

Seven House Republicans have also now publicly said that they think he should resign, a group that's grown alongside the number of allegations about Santos.

"It is clear that George Santos has lost his confidence and support of his party, his constituents, and his colleagues. With the extent and severity of the allegations against him, his inability to take full responsibility for his conduct, and the numerous investigations underway, I believe he is unable to fulfill his duties and should resign," said Rep. Mike Lawler, R-N.Y., one of the latest member to push for Santos' ouster.

If Republicans don't vote to expel Santos, Republicans who want to see some kind of punishment for him are facing a minuscule list of options, short of a penalty from the House Ethics Committee, which is often loathe to dress down a colleague.

McCarthy has already indicated that Santos won't serve on any top committees -- spots on which almost never go to first-term lawmakers anyway -- and other Republicans have voiced concerns about Santos sitting on any panel relating to national security.

For others, though, that doesn't go far enough.

"If we are gonna be kicking Democrats off their committees, then he should be the first to go on our side, too," the House Republican said. "What’s good for the goose is good for the gander."

ABC News' Katherine Faulders, Will Steakin and Lalee Ibssa contributed to this report.

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