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Lawmakers can 'vote their conscience' on expelling Santos, House speaker says, but he has concerns

Rep. George Santos, R-N.Y., speaks to reporters as he leaves a caucus meeting of Republican House members on Capitol Hill, Thursday, Oct. 12, 2023 in Washington. (AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein) Rep. George Santos, R-N.Y., speaks to reporters as he leaves a caucus meeting of Republican House members on Capitol Hill, Thursday, Oct. 12, 2023 in Washington. (AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein)
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WASHINGTON -

Speaker Mike Johnson expressed reservations Wednesday about expelling Rep. George Santos from the House this week, but said he and other GOP leaders will not push colleagues to oppose removing the New York Republican from office. "We're going to allow people to vote their conscience," Johnson said.

Santos has survived two previous expulsion efforts in his first year in Congress and has said he will not seek reelection, but the hands-off approach this time could tip the scales against him. Support for ousting Santos has grown after a monthslong investigation by the House Ethics Committee found that Santos "sought to fraudulently exploit every aspect of his House candidacy for his own personal financial profit."

Johnson, R-La., said he has heard Republican lawmakers make forceful arguments on both sides. Some have argued that Santos should have his day in court before an expulsion vote occurs; that has been the precedent in the House so far. Others believe that some of the things Santos did are "infractions against the House itself" and deserving of expulsion.

"And so what we've said as the leadership team is we're going to allow people to vote their conscience I think is the only appropriate thing we can do," Johnson said. "We've not whipped the vote and we wouldn't. I trust that people will make that decision thoughtfully and in good faith. I personally have real reservations about doing this. I'm concerned about a precedent that may be set."

Lawmakers returned from their Thanksgiving break this week with competing expulsion resolutions brought to the floor -- one from Democrats, the other from Republicans. The resolutions require leadership to bring them up for consideration within two days, though it is expected that Democrats would not seek a second vote if Johnson brings the Republican expulsion resolution to the floor first.

A vote on expulsion could occur as early as Thursday, though Johnson suggested it would slip to Friday.

In the history of the House, only five members have been expelled, which is the most serious form of punishment the House can exact on its members. Only two have been removed by their colleagues since the Civil War.

The Republican resolution is sponsored by Rep. Michael Guest of Mississippi, chairman of the House Ethics Committee. It states that the committee's investigation determined there was "substantial evidence" that Santos violated federal law and the rules of the House, namely by converting campaign funds to personal use and through systemic reporting errors in his 2020 and 2022 campaign's filings with the Federal Election Commission. It also noted Santos' lack of candor with investigators, saying he provided them with "misrepresentations and delay tactics."

"Given his egregious violations," Santos "is not fit to serve" in the House and should be expelled, according to the resolution.

Santo, who is facing 23 charges in federal court, defiantly rejected the committee's findings in remarks on the House floor shortly after the resolution from Guest was offered by Rep. Anthony D'Esposito, R-N.Y. Santos has pleaded not guilty.

"The process in which the Ethics Committee engaged was incomplete, irresponsible, and littered with hyperbole and littered with biased opinions," Santos said.

Some Republicans are holding out hope that Santos will resign before an expulsion vote. But he has been adamant that will not happen.

"To set the record straight and put this in the record, I will not be resigning," Santos said on Tuesday night.

Johnson's remarks came after a closed-door meeting among Republicans. There is division within the conference about how to deal with Santos. At least two-thirds of the members present and voting must vote for the resolution for Santos to be expelled.

Rep. Ralph Norman, R-S.C., said "let the people of New York deal with him."

"He's already said he's not running," Norman said. "Our priorities are misplaced by putting this at the top of the list, and even having a conversation about it. To me, as I told the rest of them, Americans deserve better."

Added Rep. Bob Good, R-Va.: "This is a terrible, dangerous precedent."

Rep. Byron Donalds, R-Fla., said he thinks that "if a member gets expelled, it's because they were convicted in a court of law."

An expulsion resolution voted on in early November failed by a vote of 179 for expulsion and 213 against, with 19 voting present. Many Republicans wanted to wait for the House Ethics Committee to complete its investigation before making such a decision about Santos.

Rep. Dusty Johnson, R-S.D., joined with most Republicans in voting against expulsion four weeks ago. But this time he will be a yes, he said.

"It's very clear this guy is a crook," Johnson said. "His presence is unbecoming of the House. I'll certainly vote to expel and I think it will be a pretty strong bipartisan vote."

Rep. Ken Buck, R-Colo., said he voted against expulsion previously because he believed Santos had not received due process to ensure he was treated fairly.

"I thought the Ethics Committee gave him that due process, and he didn't take advantage of it," Buck said. "And I think the allegations and the findings that they made are sufficient to vote for expulsion so I will be voting for expulsion."

Republicans hold a 222-213 majority in the House. If Santos is forced from Congress, New York law will require Democratic Gov. Kathy Hochul to call a special election for his seat.

The governor would have 10 days from the day Santos leaves office to issue a proclamation calling for an election, and then that election would have to take place between 70 days and 80 days from her proclamation.

More than a dozen candidates are already running for Santos' seat, including former Rep. Tom Suozzi, a Democrat who previously represented the district before an unsuccessful run for governor last year.

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Associated Press writers Anthony Izaguirre in Albany, New York, and Farnoush Amiri contributed to this report.

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