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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Republican impeachment of Mayorkas fails amid GOP defections

Rep. Ken Buck (R-Colo.), one of three dissenting Republicans who foiled a Republican-led attempt to impeach Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, on Tuesday, Feb. 6, 2024. In a stunning defeat for Speaker Mike Johnson, the House rejected the impeachment charges. Republicans had promised the action for months and said they would try again as early as Wednesday. (Kenny Holston/The New York Times)

By Karoun Demirjian

The House of Representatives earlier this week defeated impeachment charges against Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas after a small group of Republicans broke with their party and refused to support what amounted to a partisan indictment of President Joe Biden’s immigration policies.

The failure of the effort was a stunning setback for Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., who had vowed to indict Mayorkas and expressed confidence that he had the backing to charge him with high crimes and misdemeanors for failing to lock down the United States border with Mexico amid a migrant surge. House Republicans have been promising to do so for more than a year.

In an extraordinary and chaotic scene on the House floor, Republican leaders at first seemed to have clinched a victory, despite three GOP defections by Reps. Ken Buck of Colorado, Mike Gallagher of Wisconsin and Tom McClintock of California — only to have it slip through their grasp when Rep. Al Green, D-Texas, recovering from abdominal surgery, showed up in his hospital garb to vote.

Republican leaders held the vote open for several minutes, scrambling to corral the necessary support for the charges as Democrats jeered and yelled “Order! Order!” and the tally hovered at a tie. In the end, they could not overcome the opposition, and the measure failed by a vote of 216-214.

Last week, the House Homeland Security Committee approved two articles that charged Mayorkas with refusing to comply with the law and breaching the public trust. But it was only over the past few weeks that Republican leaders, under pressure from the hard right, rushed the impeachment through the committee and to the floor — without ever ensuring they had the requisite support to pass it given their minuscule House majority.

There were signs before Tuesday’s vote that the outcome was in doubt. As it drew near, some Republicans began airing their reservations about impeaching a Cabinet secretary for carrying out the policies of the administration he serves.

“Secretary Mayorkas is guilty of maladministration of our immigration laws on a cosmic scale, but we know that’s not grounds for impeachment, because the American founders specifically rejected it,” McClintock said on the House floor, explaining his opposition to the charges. Cabinet secretaries, he added, “can be impeached for committing a crime relating to their office, but not for carrying out presidential policy. This border crisis can’t be fixed by replacing one left-wing official with another.”

Buck had signaled for weeks that he opposed the move. And other Republicans, including Gallagher, had expressed concerns to their colleagues privately but refused to publicize how they would vote.

Their opposition put them in line with Democrats, former secretaries of homeland security and constitutional law experts — including several conservatives — who had condemned the charges. They argued that Republicans were trying to spin a policy dispute into a constitutional indictment, with no evidence that Mayorkas’ conduct rose to the level of high crimes and misdemeanors.

“We have serious problems at the border — no one denies that — but these are not serious people,” said Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., a lead prosecutor during House Democrats’ first impeachment of former President Donald Trump. “This impeachment is baseless, it is unconstitutional, and it should be defeated.”

Republicans’ failed effort at impeachment unfolded as they cheered on the demise of a Senate effort to pass a bipartisan national security supplemental package that would crack down on border crossings. For weeks, Johnson has been warning that the Senate bill, which Mayorkas helped to negotiate, would be dead on arrival in the House. That dissuaded many Senate Republicans from supporting the measure, which was expected to fail in a test vote Wednesday.

Democrats, accusing Republicans of taking their marching orders from Trump, warned that GOP members would suffer political consequences for trying to impeach Mayorkas, which they said amounted to pursuing a political vendetta, instead of working on bipartisan legislation to improve border security.

“You really want to impeach Joe Biden, but you realized that that is politically unpopular,” House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., said on the floor.

“You will live with this like a scarlet letter,” he told Republicans, adding that Mayorkas should treat the impeachment “like a badge of honor because it’s worthless, it means nothing, it’s fake, it’s fraudulent and it’s foolish.”

It was unclear how Republicans planned to regroup after the defeat, given how much capital leaders had placed on pursuing the impeachment charges — and how politically important the issue of the border is expected to be for the GOP in an election year.

As of late Tuesday night, House Republican leaders had not given up on impeaching Mayorkas, and were making plans at a second attempt in the near future. But the only likely way to achieve a different outcome would be if Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La., the majority leader who is going through cancer treatment and missed Tuesday’s vote, is present.

Critics of the case pointed out that attempting to remove the secretary was unlikely to bring about a change in the Biden administration’s border policies, and would not suddenly equip officials with the powers and resources they needed to do a more effective job at carrying out the nation’s border enforcement laws.

On Tuesday, a bipartisan group of three former secretaries of homeland security — Michael Chertoff, who served under President George W. Bush, and Janet Napolitano and Jeh Johnson — admonished Republicans for focusing on impeachment instead of working to pass laws to improve the border.

“Impeaching Secretary Mayorkas solves nothing and leaves our outdated immigration system exactly where it is now — broken,” they wrote. “We urge you to set aside this groundless impeachment effort and get back to solving America’s real problems.”

Drivers of the impeachment effort nonetheless sought to heap blame at Mayorkas’ feet during the floor debate on Tuesday.

“He’s guilty of aiding and abetting the complete invasion of our country by criminals, gang members, terrorists, murderers, rapists and over 10 million people from 160 countries into American communities all across the United States,” Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., said on the floor, in one of the most incendiary statements of the debate.

A spokesperson for the Department of Homeland Security excoriated those attacks and the entire impeachment venture as pointless.

“This baseless impeachment should never have moved forward,” spokesperson Mia Ehrenberg said. “If House Republicans are serious about border security, they should abandon these political games and instead support the bipartisan national security agreement in the Senate.”

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