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 RosensteinThe Hill's Morning Report — Trump retreats on census citizenship question Judiciary issues blitz of subpoenas for Kushner, Sessions, Trump associates House Judiciary to vote to authorize subpoenas for Trump officials, immigration documents MORE, the administration official overseeing special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) Swan MuellerTop Republican considered Mueller subpoena to box in Democrats Kamala Harris says her Justice Dept would have 'no choice' but to prosecute Trump for obstruction Dem committees win new powers to investigate Trump 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 ComstockProgressives face steep odds in ousting incumbent Democrats K Street giants scoop up coveted ex-lawmakers GOP lawmaker introduces bill to stop revolving door 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 CurbeloDemocratic lawmaker pushes back on Castro's call to repeal law making illegal border crossings a crime The Hill's Morning Report - Trump, Biden go toe-to-toe in Iowa Ex-GOP lawmakers are face of marijuana blitz 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. FitzpatrickThe 27 Republicans who voted with Democrats to block Trump from taking military action against Iran Overnight Defense: Woman accusing general of sexual assault willing to testify | Joint Chiefs pick warns against early Afghan withdrawal | Tensions rise after Iran tries to block British tanker Bipartisan group of lawmakers invites colleagues to tour DC's Holocaust museum 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-LehtinenWomen lawmakers to play in Congressional Baseball Game following Title IX anniversary Press beat lawmakers to keep trophy in annual softball game K Street giants scoop up coveted ex-lawmakers 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 CostellloHead of Pennsylvania GOP resigns over alleged explicit texts Lobbying world Overnight 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 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 JordanSocial media summit highlights partisan approaches on tech The 27 Republicans who voted with Democrats to block Trump from taking military action against Iran Live coverage: House Oversight examines Trump family separation policy MORE (R-Ohio) and his decision to join the race to succeed Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanJuan Williams: GOP in a panic over Mueller House Republicans dismissive of Paul Ryan's take on Trump Amash's critics miss the fact that partisanship is the enemy of compromise 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 LewisRepublicans must push through genuine health care reform Investigation concludes marijuana, medication impaired driver involved in GOP train crash The 31 Trump districts that will determine the next House majority 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 MeadowsHouse Republicans dismissive of Paul Ryan's take on Trump The 27 Republicans who voted with Democrats to block Trump from taking military action against Iran Live coverage: House Oversight examines Trump family separation policy 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 BoehnerAmash's critics miss the fact that partisanship is the enemy of compromise A cautionary tale for Justin Amash from someone who knows Border funding bill highlights the problem of 'the Senate keyhole' 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 BoehnerAmash's critics miss the fact that partisanship is the enemy of compromise A cautionary tale for Justin Amash from someone who knows Border funding bill highlights the problem of 'the Senate keyhole' 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 McCarthyThis week: House Dems voting to hold Barr, Ross in contempt Social media summit highlights partisan approaches on tech House Republicans dismissive of Paul Ryan's take on Trump 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 ScaliseHouse Republicans dismissive of Paul Ryan's take on Trump Hillicon Valley: Trump rails against 'terrible bias' at White House social media summit | Twitter hit by hour-long outage | Google admits workers listen to smart device recordings Democrats' opposition research got exposed — this time, not by the Russians 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 WalkerGOP frets over nightmare scenario for Senate primaries This week: Lawmakers return as Amash fallout looms The Hill's Campaign Report: Biden looks to rebound after tough week 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 27 Republicans who voted with Democrats to block Trump from taking military action against Iran The Hill's 12:30 Report: Dems aim to end anti-Semitism controversy with vote today CPAC attendees say Biden poses greatest threat to Trump 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 Wenstrup58 GOP lawmakers vote against disaster aid bill Step therapy forces patients to fail first: Congress can fix that Key doctors group faces political risks on guns 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.