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 Rosenstein5 myths about William Barr William Barr's only 'flaw' is that he was nominated by Trump The Hill's Morning Report — Shutdown fallout — economic distress MORE, the administration official overseeing special counsel Robert MuellerRobert 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 SmithThe Hill's Morning Report — Nasty shutdown fight gets nastier Democrat responds to being told 'go back to Puerto Rico' on House floor Democrats will push to retake vote on funding government after chaos on the floor 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 ComstockDems win Virginia state Senate special election Dem rep asks for asks for pay to be withheld during shutdown New Dem lawmaker hangs trans flag outside office on Capitol Hill 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 CurbeloEx-GOP Rep. Ryan Costello joins group pushing carbon tax Hispanic Caucus boasts record membership in new Congress Chuck Todd says his show is 'not going to give time to climate deniers' 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. FitzpatrickLatest funding bill to reopen the government fails in House GOP maps out early 2020 strategy to retake House A rare display of real political courage 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-LehtinenYoder, Messer land on K Street Ex-GOP lawmaker from Washington joins lobbying firm Black Caucus sees power grow with new Democratic majority 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 JordanMcCarthy, allies retaliate against Freedom Caucus leader Republicans request update on investigation into ex-FBI official accused of leaks GOP lawmakers rip Dems for calling Cohen to testify MORE (R-Ohio) and his decision to join the race to succeed Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanAEI names Robert Doar as new president GOP can't excommunicate King and ignore Trump playing to white supremacy and racism House vote fails to quell storm surrounding Steve King 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 LewisMLB donated to GOP lawmaker who made controversial comments about women, minorities Minnesota New Members 2019 Overnight Health Care — Presented by The Partnership for Safe Medicines — Medicaid expansion gets extra boost from governors' races | Utah's expansion to begin April 1 | GOP lawmaker blames McCain for Dems winning House 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 MeadowsOvernight Health Care: Trump vows to veto bills expanding abortion rights | Abortion foes march into divided Washington | Medicaid work requirements approved in Arizona Abortion foes march into divided Washington McCarthy, allies retaliate against Freedom Caucus leader 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 BoehnerBreaking the impasse on shutdown, border security McCarthy, allies retaliate against Freedom Caucus leader House vote fails to quell storm surrounding Steve King 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 BoehnerBreaking the impasse on shutdown, border security McCarthy, allies retaliate against Freedom Caucus leader House vote fails to quell storm surrounding Steve King 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 McCarthySteve King fundraising off controversy surrounding white supremacy comments House rejects GOP measure to pay workers but not open government McCarthy, allies retaliate against Freedom Caucus leader 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 ScaliseDemocrats will push to retake vote on funding government after chaos on the floor Pelosi pulls State of the Union surprise on Trump House GOP blast Pelosi for suggesting State of the Union delay 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 WalkerFlorida governor suspends Palm Beach County elections supervisor Corker: Breakthrough reached in shutdown stalemate Senate in last-minute talks to find deal to avert shutdown  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 WilliamsCongress starts first day of shutdown with modest hope Senate agrees to last-ditch talks, but no clear path over shutdown Pelosi vows Dem help after GOP ‘meltdown’ on spending bills 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 WenstrupCNN host pushes back on GOP lawmaker’s claim: ‘Hold on, diseases are not pouring into the country' House lawmakers look to reassure Australia after Mattis resignation Vets can soon be thankful for Congress's interest in payment issues 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.