George Santos was welcomed onto the floor of the US House of Representatives Tuesday and promptly cast his first vote for Kevin McCarthy to serve as the next speaker of the House.
That vote from the scandal-plagued representative-elect from New York wasn’t enough to save McCarthy from the humiliation of losing that vote. And things went from bad to worse for McCarthy as the voting progressed. While he maintained the loyalty of Santos, McCarthy lost the support of 19 right-wing members of his own caucus on the first speakership test, and the same numbers on a second test several hours later. In a third vote before members gave up for the day, the number of Republican dissidents rose to 20.
It was the most chaotic opening day of a new Congress since 1923, when a narrowly divided House voted nine times before Speaker Frederick Huntington Gillett (R-Mass.) was reelected to the top job. It could be just as hard for McCarthy, who actually finished behind House Democratic leader Hakeem Jeffries of New York in all three speakership votes. Only the fact that a candidate needs a clear majority, in this case 218 votes, prevented Jeffries from claiming the speakership and kept McCarthy in the running.
The chaos in the Republican ranks was the big story on Tuesday. But Santos was much more than a footnote to the proceedings. The acceptance by Republicans of the New Yorker as a voting member of their caucus confirmed that a win-at-any-cost sensibility has now so fully infected the Republican Party that no sin is serious enough to earn a rebuke from its leading members.
With a narrow majority and an unstable caucus, McCarthy, Steve Scalise, Elise Stefanik, and the other members of the House Republican Caucus uttered not a whimper of objection when Santos arrived. The Long Island Republican, who was elected in November to represent a previously Democratic district, joined in the voting for the speakership even after a stunning series of post-election investigations revealed that he has lied about his education, his religion, his work history, and pretty much everything else he had discussed on the campaign trail. Everyone who is serious about the American experiment knows that the representative-elect should have stepped aside rather than show up on Tuesday to vote on who will lead the chamber during the 118th Congress. He’s even been shredded on Fox News, where guest host Tulsi Gabbard, a former House member and Democratic presidential contender, said to the New Yorker, “My question is, do you have no shame?” After Santos struggled to answer the question, Gabbard concluded by musing about whether his constituents “could possibly trust your explanations when you’re not really even willing to admit the depth of your deception to them.”
But Santos has not just embarrassed himself. He has embarrassed McCarthy, Scalise, and Stefanik at a level so profound that, in many senses, the newcomer defines the Republican Party as it has constituted itself in 2023. Noting the enthusiasm with which Stefanik, a fellow New Yorker, backed Santos despite concerns that had surfaced about the candidate’s credibility, Representative Ritchie Torres summed things up by declaring, “The House Republican leadership is complicit in the fraud Santos perpetrated against the public.”
That complicity goes back to the election season, in which top Republicans lined up to endorse Santos, who had lost a previous House race in New York’s third district but won in 2022. After accepting a formal endorsement from McCarthy in July, Santos tweeted, “Together we will help preserve and protect the American dream for generations to come.”
McCarthy’s endorsement of Santos as a candidate, and his enthusiastic celebration of Santos’s election, has come back to haunt him. But, still, the Republican leader and his associates have refused to rebuke the New Yorker—let alone to suggest that Santos should not take his seat.
Why? Because McCarthy, whose grip on the House Republican Caucus was never firm, clearly believes he needs Santos.
The Republican majority in the US House is 222-212—with one Democratic vacancy. Flip a handful of seats, and the GOP is no longer in charge. Scared about the prospect of losing even one GOP vote, McCarthy refused to comment on the trials and tribulations of Santos. Even as the revelations reached absurd levels, and Santos’s inability to defend himself became clear, McCarthy stayed silent. The same went for Scalise and Stefanik.
McCarthy, a bumbling political hanger-on who moved into the leadership only after more capable Republicans quit or were defeated, was right to fear for his future. The trio of failed speakership votes on Tuesday left no doubt that he is the most inept House Republican leader in the party’s modern history. And that’s saying something, when you consider the fact that House Republicans were, for eight years from the late 1990s into the 2000s, led by inept Illinois Representative Dennis Hastert, who would eventually exchange his leadership post for a new career as a convicted felon.
But this is about more than McCarthy. His entire leadership team has failed to lead with regard to Santos. And they will continue to fail.
If and when McCarthy is consigned to the dustbin of history as the Republican leader who could not lead his caucus, it’s all but certain that he will be replaced by another Republican who suffers from the same lack of conscience. And George Santos will continue to sit in the Republican House of Shame.