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Effort to expel Santos falters as Republicans vote to send measure to Ethics Committee

U.S. Rep. George Santos speaks to reporters as he leaves the federal courthouse in Central Islip, N.Y., Wednesday, May 10, 2023. A 13-count federal indictment unsealed in New York accuses Santos of embezzling money from his campaign, falsely receiving unemployment funds and lying to Congress about his finances. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

WASHINGTON (AP) — A resolution to expel Rep. George Santos, R-N.Y., from Congress was referred to the House Ethics Committee on Wednesday as Republicans successfully sidestepped an effort to force them into a vote that could have narrowed their already slim four-seat majority.

The House voted along party lines, 221-204, to refer the matter to the ethics panel, with Santos himself joining his GOP colleagues in voting to do so.

The freshman congressman has been charged with embezzling money from his campaign, falsely receiving unemployment funds and lying to Congress about his finances. He has denied the charges and has pleaded not guilty.

Rep. Robert Garcia, D-Calif., introduced a resolution in February to expel Santos, something the House has only done twice in recent decades. He sought to force a vote on that resolution under a process that left three options for Republicans: a vote on the resolution, a move to table, or a referral to committee.

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy chose the third option, much to the chagrin of Democrats who described it as a “complete copout.” They noted that the ethics panel is already investigating Santos and that it was time for Republican House members who have called for Santos to resign to back their words with action.

“It is simply an effort for the Republicans to avoid having to take an up-or-down vote on whether or not George Santos belongs here,” said Rep. Dan Goldman, D-N.Y.

Santos made clear to reporters after the vote he has no intention of resigning. As he spoke on the Capitol steps, he was heckled by Democratic Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Jamaal Bowman. Bowman yelled, "Resign, save yourself, have some dignity."

“I understand that politics is complicated, but the reality is there is a procedure,” Santos said. “You can’t be judge, jury and executioner. I have a right, a constitutional right, to defend myself and I will do that. And I look forward to doing that. I look forward to seeing the process play out.”

Democrats appealed to Republican lawmakers from New York for support. Many have been highly critical of Santos, and face the prospect of Democrats trying to link them to Santos in next year's general election.

“I say to you, if you vote for this motion to refer it to the Ethics Committee, you are complicit in George Santos' fraud and you are voting to make sure that he continues to be a member of Congress,” Goldman said.

Rep. Anthony D'Esposito, R-N.Y., made the motion to refer the expulsion resolution to the ethics panel. He said he was personally in favor of Santos being expelled, but added that “regrettably," there were not enough votes to meet the two-thirds threshold necessary.

“I firmly believe this is the quickest way of ridding the House of Representatives of this scourge on government,” D'Esposito said.

Republican leaders have said Santos deserves to have his day in court before Congress weighs in. The position Republican leaders have staked out generally follows the precedent that Congress has set in similar criminal cases over the years. The House has expelled just two members in recent decades, and both votes occurred after the lawmaker had been convicted on federal charges.

The Department of Justice often asks the ethics panel to pause its investigations when a member of Congress has been indicted, but there has been no announcement of that kind from the committee regarding Santos.

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Associated Press writer Stephen Groves contributed to this report.