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 RosensteinWashington still needs more transparency House Judiciary to probe DOJ's seizure of data from lawmakers, journalists The Hill's Morning Report - Biden-Putin meeting to dominate the week MORE, the administration official overseeing special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) MuellerSenate Democrats urge Garland not to fight court order to release Trump obstruction memo Why a special counsel is guaranteed if Biden chooses Yates, Cuomo or Jones as AG Barr taps attorney investigating Russia probe origins as special counsel MORE.

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

Rep. Jason SmithJason Thomas SmithTrump unhappy with Guilfoyle backing Greitens: report Giuliani to stump for Greitens in Missouri GAO rules Biden freeze on border wall funds legal 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 ComstockThe Memo: Trump pours gas on tribalism with Jan. 6 rewrite Former GOP rep calls on party to move on from 'patron saint of sore losers' Trump The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Biden mission abroad: reward friends, constrain adversaries 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 CurbeloDirect air capture is a crucial bipartisan climate policy Biden's corporate tax hike is bad for growth — try a carbon tax instead Cheney fight stokes cries of GOP double standard for women 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. FitzpatrickGyms, hotels, bus companies make last-ditch plea for aid Democrats seek to calm nervous left Biden's corporate tax hike is bad for growth — try a carbon tax instead 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-LehtinenHigh-speed rail getting last minute push in Congress Bottom line Bottom line 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 CostellloRep. Brendan Boyle decides against Pennsylvania Senate bid Pennsylvania's Democratic lt. governor files to run for Senate Bottom Line 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 Jordan58 percent say Jan. 6 House committee is biased: poll Kinzinger supports Jan. 6 panel subpoenas for Republicans, including McCarthy Jordan acknowledges talking to Trump on Jan. 6 MORE (R-Ohio) and his decision to join the race to succeed Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanWisconsin GOP quietly prepares Ron Johnson backup plans RealClearPolitics reporter says Freedom Caucus shows how much GOP changed under Trump Juan Williams: Biden's child tax credit is a game-changer 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 MeadowsMeadows says Trump World looking to 'move forward in a real way' Trump takes two punches from GOP Watchdog urges Justice to probe Trump, Meadows for attempting to 'weaponize' DOJ 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 BoehnerA new kind of hero? Last week's emotional TV may be a sign GOP up in arms over Cheney, Kinzinger Freedom Caucus presses McCarthy to force vote to oust Pelosi 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 BoehnerA new kind of hero? Last week's emotional TV may be a sign GOP up in arms over Cheney, Kinzinger Freedom Caucus presses McCarthy to force vote to oust Pelosi 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 McCarthy58 percent say Jan. 6 House committee is biased: poll The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Senate finalizes .2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill Sunday shows - Delta variant, infrastructure dominate 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 ScaliseRepublican who went maskless now says coronavirus 'wants to kill us' Republican governors revolt against CDC mask guidance House to resume mask mandate after new CDC guidance 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 WalkerFirst hearing set for lawsuit over Florida's new anti-riot bill NRA appealing Florida ban on gun sales to people under 21 Trump's biggest political obstacle is Trump 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 WilliamsNew spotlight on secretaries of state as electoral battlegrounds GOP divided on anti-Biden midterm message The Hill's Morning Report - Bidens to visit Surfside, Fla., collapse site 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 WenstrupHouse approves select panel to probe Jan. 6 attack Overnight Defense: Biden, Putin agree to launch arms control talks at summit | 2002 war authorization repeal will get Senate vote | GOP rep warns Biden 'blood with be on his hands' without Afghan interpreter evacuation GOP rep: If Biden doesn't evacuate Afghan interpreters, 'blood will be on his hands' 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.