House GOP starts summer break on a note of friction

House GOP starts summer break on a note of friction
© Greg Nash

House Republicans weren’t talking about the economy as they left Washington for the August recess before a challenging midterm.

The topics dominating the halls of Congress on Thursday were Russia and the conservative push to impeach Deputy Attorney General Rod RosensteinRod Jay RosensteinTrump denies ordering McGahn to oust Mueller Poll: Majority says Barr's summary of Mueller report was 'largely accurate' Heavy lapses in judgment are politicizing the justice system MORE, the administration official overseeing special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) Swan MuellerSasse: US should applaud choice of Mueller to lead Russia probe MORE.

It wasn’t the conversation vulnerable Republicans fretting about keeping their jobs this fall wanted to have.

Rep. Jason SmithJason Thomas SmithMain Street businesses need permanent tax relief to grow House panel votes to boost spending by 3B over two years Progressives come to Omar's defense MORE, (Mo.) a member of the GOP leadership team who represents a safe GOP district, said he had no desire to comment about the House Freedom Caucus’s impeachment push as he boarded an elevator after the last votes of the month.

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But then Rep. Barbara ComstockBarbara Jean ComstockGOP lawmaker introduces bill to stop revolving door Ex-lawmakers face new scrutiny over lobbying Trump suggests Heller lost reelection bid because he was 'hostile' during 2016 presidential campaign MORE (R-Va.) quickly cut into the conversation, volunteering to The Hill without any prompting: “I am opposed to impeachment.”

It was clear that Comstock — perhaps the most vulnerable House Republican this campaign cycle who rarely seeks out reporters in the Capitol — wanted to nip the controversial issue in the bud before driving across the Potomac River to her Northern Virginia swing district, home to the Central Intelligence Agency and numerous U.S. defense and intelligence employees.

Another top Democratic target, Rep. Carlos CurbeloCarlos Luis CurbeloOvernight Energy: Bipartisan climate caucus eyes litmus test for new members| Green groups want freeze on Keystone construction| Bernhardt sworn in as Secretary of Interior Overnight Energy: Bipartisan climate caucus eyes litmus test for new members | Greens want freeze on Keystone construction | Bernhardt sworn in as Interior chief Bipartisan climate caucus eyes litmus test for new members MORE (R-Fla.), slammed the Freedom Caucus’s impeachment push as a “reckless publicity stunt,” while 2018 at-risk Republican, Pennsylvania Rep. Brian FitzpatrickBrian K. FitzpatrickFreshman House Dems surge past GOP in money race Cybersecurity Advisory Committee will strengthen national security through a stronger public-private partnership Congress is ready to tackle climate change MORE, a former FBI agent, said it was unwise to bring impeachment to the floor right before the crucial November midterms.

“Ridiculous, not needed, distraction” was the way centrist Rep. Ileana Ros-LehtinenIleana Carmen Ros-LehtinenK Street boom extends under Trump, House Dems Bottom Line The women in white and the trails they blaze MORE (R-Fla.), a member of the Intelligence Committee, described the impeachment effort. She’s retiring after a two-decade career in Congress, but Ros-Lehtinen is close to many moderate GOP colleagues.

“It is a way to sideline and end the [Robert] Mueller investigation prematurely," she said. “And I think that politically it also puts our moderate, endangered Republicans in a difficult spot.”

Not everyone agrees the impeachment issue will put vulnerable Republicans in a bind.

GOP Rep. Ryan CostelloRyan Anthony CostellloOvernight Energy: Park Service closing Joshua Tree after shutdown damage | Dems deliver trash from parks to White House | Dems offer bills to block offshore drilling | Oil lobby worries about Trump trade fight Ex-GOP Rep. Ryan Costello joins group pushing carbon tax Exiting lawmakers jockey for K Street perch MORE (Pa.), another centrist retiring after this Congress, argued that all the talk of impeaching Rosenstein won’t be a game-changer.

“You will state you disagree with [impeachment] and half your base will think you’re soft and complain that you’re not sticking up for Trump,” Costello said of his moderate colleagues. But it’s “more a minor headache than a needle-mover.”

That Republicans were talking about Rosenstein was yet another example of just how much the House Freedom Caucus has dominated the GOP’s messaging and agenda in recent years, much to leadership’s chagrin.

Along with the Rosenstein push, another top topic on Thursday was Rep. Jim JordanJames (Jim) Daniel JordanDems digging into Trump finances post-Mueller Overnight Health Care: DOJ charges doctors over illegal opioid prescriptions | Cummings accuses GOP of obstructing drug pricing probe | Sanders courts Republican voters with 'Medicare for All' | Dems probe funding of anti-abortion group Cummings accuses Oversight Republicans of obstructing drug price probe MORE (R-Ohio) and his decision to join the race to succeed Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanAppeals court rules House chaplain can reject secular prayers FEC filing: No individuals donated to indicted GOP rep this cycle The Hill's Morning Report - Waiting on Mueller: Answers come on Thursday MORE (R-Wis.).

Both subjects highlighted GOP divisions — not fights between Republicans and Democrats.

Ryan appeared focused on a different message at his weekly news conference Thursday.

The outgoing Speaker wanted to highlight legislation aimed at boosting skills training for technical jobs. But the first four questions Ryan got from reporters focused on impeachment, Jordan's Speaker bid and  racist remarks from Rep. Jason LewisJason Mark LewisInvestigation concludes marijuana, medication impaired driver involved in GOP train crash The 31 Trump districts that will determine the next House majority MLB donated to GOP lawmaker who made controversial comments about women, minorities MORE (R-Minn.) before he was in Congress.

“Didn't you guys want to talk about the 'Better Off Now' agenda?" Ryan joked at one point, referring to the GOP's new 2018 messaging effort, and holding up a pamphlet for the TV cameras.

Jordan and Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark MeadowsMark Randall MeadowsThe Hill's Morning Report — Mueller aftermath: What will House Dems do now? Mueller report poses new test for Dems Washington in frenzy over release of Mueller report MORE (R-N.C.), two of Trump’s staunchest defenders, said GOP leaders have agreed to vote in September to hold Rosenstein in contempt of Congress if the Department of Justice (DOJ) and FBI fail to turn over a trove of documents conservatives say would expose bias in Mueller’s probe into Russian collusion with the 2016 Trump campaign.

But the Freedom Caucus leaders say impeachment is very much still on the table and they can use procedural moves to force a vote at any time.

“It’s still there. It’s sent to the Judiciary Committee and can be brought up at any time,” Jordan said in an interview Friday morning on “Fox & Friends,” Trump’s favorite television program, where he discussed his Speaker bid and the impeachment threat.

Having the divisive impeachment issue hanging over the August recess is a strategy straight out of the Freedom Caucus playbook.

On July 28, 2015, the last day before the August recess that year, Meadows brazenly filed a resolution to oust then-Speaker John BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerBoehner: 'I wouldn't bother' with primary challenge to Trump if I were Kasich Dems charge ahead on immigration Nancy Pelosi had disastrous first 100 days as Speaker of the House MORE (R-Ohio), an issue that put GOP lawmakers in a tricky spot as they fielded questions back home about the unpopular Speaker. BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerBoehner: 'I wouldn't bother' with primary challenge to Trump if I were Kasich Dems charge ahead on immigration Nancy Pelosi had disastrous first 100 days as Speaker of the House MORE announced his resignation two months later.

A year later, two Freedom Caucus members deployed a similar tactic, filing a resolution to impeach then-IRS Commissioner John Koskinen just before the August recess.  

Introducing five articles of impeachment against Rosenstein now allows Freedom Caucus members to tell their restive conservative base back home that they are fighting to defend the president from the Mueller probe.

It also gives Jordan, a long shot candidate for Speaker, an opportunity to portray himself as more loyal to Trump than the presumed front-runner, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthyKevin Owen McCarthyThe Hill's Morning Report - Trump tells House investigators 'no' NSA recommends ending mass phone data collection program: report Watchdog: Custodial staff alleged sexual harassment in lawmakers' offices MORE. The California Republican, who controls which bills come to the floor, said the resolution should go through the committee process first and has not said how he would vote on impeachment.

Majority Whip Steve ScaliseStephen (Steve) Joseph Scalise20 years after Columbine, Dems bullish on gun reform GOP to launch discharge petition on anti-BDS measure This week: Democrats revive net neutrality fight MORE (R-La.) said he would vote for impeachment if it came to the floor, while another potential rival for the Speakership, Republican Study Committee Chairman Mark WalkerBradley (Mark) Mark WalkerMembers spar over sexual harassment training deadline Colorado state senators plan to introduce bill to let NCAA athletes get paid Republicans offer 'free market alternative' to paid family leave MORE (R-N.C.) said he would oppose it.

It’s not just moderate Republicans who’ve been put in a tricky spot by the Freedom Caucus’s August moves. Traditional Republicans will also be asked by constituents and local reporters this summer whether want Jordan to be the next Speaker and if they back the impeachment resolution.

“I haven’t studied it yet. I read it and looked at it. But I wouldn’t be against it right now,” Rep. Roger WilliamsJohn (Roger) Roger WilliamsThe Hill's 12:30 Report: Dems aim to end anti-Semitism controversy with vote today CPAC attendees say Biden poses greatest threat to Trump Don’t look for House GOP to defy Trump on border wall MORE (R-Texas), who's eyeing a possible bid for Republican Study Committee chairman, said of impeachment. “I don’t know where I stand on it other than it might be possible. I’m taking a look at it.”

Jordan’s Ohio colleague, GOP Rep. Brad WenstrupBrad Robert WenstrupKey doctors group faces political risks on guns GOP announces members who will serve on House intel panel CNN host pushes back on GOP lawmaker’s claim: ‘Hold on, diseases are not pouring into the country' MORE, also said he was still reviewing the matter and was unsure how he’d vote on impeachment.

“The document production — I don’t know if that is an impeachable offense,” said Wenstrup, who serves on the Intelligence Committee. But “if we are a government, of the people, by the people, for the people, and agencies can tell those of us who have oversight over them that they are not turning things over when we have the same clearance they do, that is wrong."

“Then we are no longer government of the people and that to me is tyrannical, and I do have a big problem with that,” he said.

One co-sponsor of the resolution, Freedom Caucus member Rep. Scott DesJarlais (R-Tenn.), said that threatening impeachment is the only way to compel the DOJ to hand over the Russia documents.

“It seems to me that the DOJ and FBI are trying to run out the clock on the midterm elections in hopes that Republicans lose the House, which we won’t,” DesJarlais told The Hill.

“Jim Jordan, Mark Meadows and others on the petition feel that this is a deliberative attempt to slow play us,” he said.

Melanie Zanona contributed.