Last week, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy and the House leadership team were putting every ounce of energy they had into passing a bill to raise the debt limit and cut spending. Their ability to pass the bill was key to their credibility, and getting a seat at the negotiating table with President Biden the most important issue of the year.
But several House Republicans were holding out on McCarthy in the run-up to the vote, including New York Rep. George Santos. He had been describing himself as “solidly” against McCarthy’s bill the week before. His reasons were odd: Despite Santos’ representing a moderate, Biden-won district, one of his supposed complaints was that the bill’s enhanced work requirements for federal benefit programs were still too “weak.” It was, in a word, contrived.
During the floor vote, with the tally sitting at 216–215, Santos cast the final “aye” vote, securing the bill’s ultimate passage at 217–215. There was nothing requiring Santos to wait until the very end. Unless, for him, there was—a personal desire to send yet another reminder to McCarthy: You need me, no matter how much of a political liability I become.
And Santos just became a much bigger liability.
The Justice Department unsealed a 13-count indictment against Santos on Wednesday morning, “with seven counts of wire fraud, three counts of money laundering, one count of theft of public funds, and two counts of making materially false statements to the House of Representatives.”
The indictment alleges, among other things, that Santos used a consultancy to solicit major donations that theoretically would go to campaign ads. But he then had those donations transferred to his personal bank account and “used the funds to make personal purchases (including of designer clothing), to withdraw cash, to discharge personal debts, and to transfer money to his associates.”
Another alleged Santos scheme was fraudulently collecting COVID-19 unemployment benefits from March 2020 to April 2021, when he was in fact a salaried employee. The timing of this particular revelation is staggering: The House is set to vote this week on a bill called the Protecting Taxpayers and Victims of Unemployment Fraud Act, which will, among other things, go after individuals fraudulently collecting COVID unemployment benefits. Santos, an apparent expert on the issue, is 1 of 35 co-sponsors.
Many of Santos’ fellow New York Republicans have been calling on him to resign for months. But after the indictment, the list of Republicans is growing. Texas Rep. Tony Gonzales called for Santos to be “immediately expelled.” Arkansas Rep. Steve Womack said it would “absolutely” be better if Santos resigned.
Republican leadership, however, takes a different view.
When House Majority Leader Steve Scalise was asked at a Wednesday morning press conference whether Santos should resign, he noted that Santos has already been “removed from all of his committees” and that “in America, there’s a presumption of innocence, but they’re serious charges. He’s going to have to go through the legal process.” GOP conference chair Elise Stefanik said much the same.
And McCarthy, too, is standing by Santos.
“He will go through his time in trial, and let’s find out how the outcome is,” McCarthy told reporters Wednesday. When the news had first broken Tuesday afternoon, McCarthy explained the precedent he was following.
“Just like we had before with Jeff Fortenberry—he had the same ability—I removed him from committees, but he was found guilty and then I told him he needed to resign,” McCarthy told CNN. “That is my policy and principles on this.”
Former Nebraska Rep. Fortenberry did, indeed, resign upon McCarthy’s request in 2022, after being convicted of concealing information from the authorities.
There is, however, a world of difference between Fortenberry and Santos: No one had a problem with Jeff Fortenberry until he was indicted. He was a replacement-level legislator with a top-five House GOP head of hair. Prior to Santos being charged, though, Santos was already well known as a serial fraudster who made up key chunks of his life story. If Santos were in a safe Republican district, he probably would have been pushed to resign months ago for the stain he brought on the GOP conference. An indictment—on one of the very issues that House Republicans are legislating against this week!—would’ve sealed it.
But Santos is not in a safe Republican district. He’s in a Biden-won, D+2 district in which McCarthy—with his already slender majority—does not want a special election right now. He really cannot afford to see his five-vote majority go to a four-vote majority at this moment in time, when he is trying to adequately navigate House Republicans through a debt-limit negotiation and preserve his speakership. McCarthy needs George Santos.
Unfortunately for Santos, McCarthy might need him a lot less after this debt-ceiling situation is figured out.