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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 RosensteinRosenstein: Zero tolerance immigration policy 'never should have been proposed or implemented' Comey argues Trump shouldn't be prosecuted after leaving Oval Office Trump turns his ire toward Cabinet members MORE, the administration official overseeing special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) MuellerWhy a special counsel is guaranteed if Biden chooses Yates, Cuomo or Jones as AG Barr taps attorney investigating Russia probe origins as special counsel CNN's Toobin warns McCabe is in 'perilous condition' with emboldened Trump MORE.

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

Rep. Jason SmithJason Thomas SmithBlunt retirement shakes up Missouri Senate race House panel advances Biden's .9T COVID-19 aid bill On The Money: House panel spars over GameStop, Robinhood | Manchin meets with advocates for wage | Yellen says go big, GOP says hold off 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 ComstockFormer GOP lawmaker says party should denounce Marjorie Taylor Greene Former GOP congresswoman calls on Republicans to back impeachment 22 retired GOP members of Congress call for Trump's impeachment 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 CurbeloFormer GOP lawmaker: Republican Party 'engulfed in lies and fear' House GOP lawmaker unexpectedly shakes up Senate trial The Memo: Historic vote leaves Trump more isolated than ever 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. FitzpatrickHillicon Valley: Democrats push Facebook to 'take responsibility' for placement of gun accessory ads | Lawmakers introduce bill allowing Americans to take foreign hackers to court | Malala Yousafzai signs content deal with Apple House slated to vote on Violence Against Women Act next week Lawmakers introduce legislation to allow Americans to take foreign hackers to court 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-LehtinenBottom line Bottom line Democrats elect Meeks as first Black Foreign Affairs chairman 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 CostellloPennsylvania's Democratic lt. governor files to run for Senate Bottom Line Trump struggles to stay on script, frustrating GOP again 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 JordanHillary Clinton brings up 'Freedom Fries' to mock 'cancel culture' Republicans call for hearing on Biden's handling of border surge Jim Jordan calls for House Judiciary hearing on 'cancel culture' MORE (R-Ohio) and his decision to join the race to succeed Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanPaul Ryan to host fundraiser for Cheney amid GOP tensions Boehner book jacket teases slams against Cruz, Trump CPAC, all-in for Trump, is not what it used to be 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 LewisRep. Angie Craig defends Minnesota House seat in race clouded by legal confusion Smith wins reelection in Minnesota Klobuchar 'feeling good' about Democrats taking control of Senate 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 MeadowsTrump attacks Karl Rove: 'A pompous fool with bad advice' How scientists saved Trump's FDA from politics Liberals howl after Democrats cave on witnesses 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 BoehnerBottom line Three ways James Kvaal can lead postsecondary education forward Boehner book jacket teases slams against Cruz, Trump 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 BoehnerBottom line Three ways James Kvaal can lead postsecondary education forward Boehner book jacket teases slams against Cruz, Trump 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 McCarthyRepublicans' stonewall forces Democrats to pull bill honoring Capitol Police Trump ramps up battle with Republican leadership RNC fires back at Trump, says it 'has every right' to use his name in fundraising appeals 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 ScaliseRepublicans call for investigation into impact of school closures on children with disabilities Biden's COVID, border policies prove he's serious about neither Republican rips GOP lawmakers for voting by proxy from CPAC 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 WalkerNorth Carolina GOP condemns Burr for impeachment vote against Trump Madison Cawthorn throws support behind Mark Walker in NC Senate primary Democrat Jeff Jackson jumps into North Carolina Senate race 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 WilliamsDemocrats don't trust GOP on 1/6 commission: 'These people are dangerous' READ: The Republicans who voted to challenge election results Trump Georgia call divides House GOP 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 WenstrupFormer Ohio Treasurer Josh Mandel jumps into Senate race The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Which path will Democrats take on COVID-19 bill? Jim Jordan says he won't run for Senate in 2022 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.