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Former RNC communications director discusses Congressman-elect George Santos' scandal

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

A new Congress takes office this week. And the big changes include a new majority in the House. Republicans very narrowly took charge in the fall election. But their early effort to set the agenda has been overshadowed by a fight over who gets to be speaker. And there's also the story of one newly elected Republican lawmaker.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: George Santos this morning facing yet even more questions about his background as yet another...

JERICKA DUNCAN: Dozens of his constituents held a demonstration in the congressional district today. They called on that New York Republican to resign. He's been under fire for lying...

ANDREA FUJII: Telling local Republican leaders that he will not seek reelection in 2024 as his background comes under even more fire.

CHARLES LAVINE: As we stand here today watching this slow George Santos train wreck.

INSKEEP: Santos seems to have misled his constituents about his religion, about his education, about his work history and about a claim that several of his employees of a company of his were killed in the Pulse nightclub shooting in Florida, among other things. Doug Heye is following all of this. He's a former communications director for the Republican National Committee. Good morning.

DOUGLAS HEYE: Good morning. Good to be with you, Steve.

INSKEEP: How has this news affected his Republican colleagues in the House, if at all?

HEYE: Well, it's affected them in that they are bewildered by all of this. And it's not one lie, it's the sequential - almost by the day, a new shoe that's dropping that it's very difficult for them to keep up with and not your typical embellishment. These aren't embellishments. He didn't say that he graduated top of his class. He's made things up whole cloth in ways that is almost breathtakingly brazen that you don't see from politicians typically.

INSKEEP: Are House Republicans forced to think of him just as one vote that they're going to need? Kevin McCarthy needs votes for speaker. Republicans will need that vote for other things very soon.

HEYE: Well, certainly for the speaker vote. And what's interesting about the way that Congress operates is Santos is going to be - unless he decides not to, he's going to be on the House floor. And he will be voting for speaker. You know, as we focus on all of the lies and the storytelling and all of this that have happened with Santos, and some obviously potentially criminal aspects, he was duly elected by his constituents or his - will be his constituents.

So he has every right to be on the House floor and make that vote for speaker. And there's nothing that Congress can do that can prevent him from that. What they can do is potentially - and this is a very rare thing, much like having multiple votes for who will be the speaker. They can try and expel him after the fact. That's where the House Ethics Committee and a vote potentially by the House - by the body of the House, the entire House of Representatives, will happen. But that happens after the fact and after the speaker vote.

INSKEEP: Yeah. And when you think about the ethics committee, they - I don't want to say they take their time, but it takes time. He could spend his whole congressional term waiting on the result of that potentially.

HEYE: Absolutely. Now, we may see a member of Congress bring a motion on the floor after there is a speaker vote to expel him. No idea what's going to happen on that yet. But that's where this falls in two lines. One are, you know, what he said about his background, his religion, his ethnicity. All of this - a lot of it is, obviously, completely false. And then the things that we see in his campaign finance reports and so forth that open him up to criminal and ethic's - with a capital E, meaning the House Ethics Committee - jurisdiction. That's where he has very real problems. The rest of it is, you know, what we follow in politics where there may not be consequences. The legalities, what he's filed on his ethics, on - excuse me, his financial disclosures and things like that, that gets very real in violations of law. And that's where Congress may act.

INSKEEP: I want to ask about the speaker's race here. Republicans just have a few votes over 218, which is majority. Democrats are not going to vote for Kevin McCarthy. I believe there are nine Republicans who signed a letter just this past weekend saying they're not ready to vote for Kevin McCarthy. And if that's true, the numbers don't add up. Do you think McCarthy is going to be speaker?

HEYE: I think he's more likely than anyone else to win that race. And this is - we focus so often, perhaps too much, on politics being a horse race. But it's true in this case. And Kevin's the odds-on favorite. That odds-on favorite doesn't always win the race. But he's in a better position to do so than anyone. And what Kevin is doing right now is he's going back to his old job of being the whip for House Republicans to get the new job of House speaker.

INSKEEP: How would it affect the public depending on who becomes House speaker? Would we see different legislation out of this House?

HEYE: Legislation? No. But how House Republicans operate could be potentially different. And this is what we're seeing with these nine Republicans is, you know, it tends sometimes to be an almost nothing-is-good-enough caucus. So for Kevin, he has to get enough of them to say this is good enough to support him to be speaker.

INSKEEP: Doug Heye is a former communications director with the Republican National Committee. Pleasure talking with you. Thank you so much.

HEYE: Thanks so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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