House Democrats are itching for a fight with the new GOP majority over who should qualify for committee assignments, tapping Reps. Adam Schiff (Calif.) and Eric Swalwell (Calif.) to sit on the Intelligence Committee in the face of Republican vows to keep them off of the powerful panel.
A similar collision is likely to play out in a separate arena over Rep. Ilhan Omar, the third-term Minnesota lawmaker who is expected to be named by Democrats this week to the House Foreign Affairs Committee, despite GOP promises to boot her from the panel.
The Democrats’ moves — and the imminent clashes they’re certain to spark — indicate party leaders are confident the public battle over what constitutes disqualifying behavior will play to their political advantage, particularly after Republicans granted a pair of committee seats to Rep. George Santos, the embattled New York freshman who is under fire over lies about his background and questions about his finances.
In nominating Schiff and Swalwell to the Intelligence Committee, House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) made sure to name-check Santos, emphasizing his new committee posts and hammering GOP leaders for elevating a “serial fraudster” to the panels.
“The apparent double standard risks undermining the spirit of bipartisan cooperation that is so desperately needed in Congress,” Jeffries wrote in a Jan. 21 letter to Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.).
The debate arrives as the controversy surrounding Santos has shifted from one focused on resume fabrications to more serious questions about his campaign finances — allegations that have led some Republicans to call for Santos to resign from Congress altogether. Dismissing those concerns, party leaders last week nominated Santos for two committee assignments, on the House Small Business panel and the Science, Space and Technology Committee.
McCarthy himself has defended Santos, saying he was fairly elected by Long Island voters who now deserve his representation in Washington. He’s deferring questions of potential misconduct to the House Ethics Committee.
The House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, unlike most other panels, has special rules empowering the Speaker to assign every member. The selections are to be made in consultation with the minority leader, but the final roster requires the endorsement of the Speaker alone, granting McCarthy the unilateral authority to block Jeffries’s recommendations.
Traditionally, that biennial process has been a routine rubber stamp, and the minority party’s picks have been seated without controversy.
But those dynamics have shifted since 2021, when Democrats staged successful votes to strip two Republicans — Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene (Ga.) and Paul Gosar (Ariz.) — of their committee assignments.
That feud was exacerbated when former Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) vetoed two of then-Minority Leader McCarthy’s picks for the select panel investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol — a move that prompted McCarthy to boycott the probe altogether.
Since then, McCarthy has vowed to keep Schiff and Swalwell from returning to the Intelligence panel — a pledge he amplified on Capitol Hill this month, when he accused the pair of politicizing the committee.
“I’m doing exactly what we’re supposed to do,” McCarthy said.
The accusations Republicans are leveling against Schiff and Swalwell are unique to each lawmaker.
Schiff, as former chairman of the Intelligence Committee, had led the investigations into former President Trump’s ties to Russia, and he was the lead manager in Trump’s first impeachment, which centered around charges that Trump had leveraged U.S. military aid to pressure Ukrainian leaders to investigate his political rivals. Republicans have accused Schiff of lying to the public during the course of those probes.
In Swalwell’s case, Republicans are pointing to his association with a suspected Chinese spy who had helped fundraise for Swalwell’s 2014 reelection campaign — an episode first revealed publicly in 2020. After the FBI informed Swalwell of their concern, he cut ties with the Chinese national, who fled to Beijing. But that’s done nothing to temper the attacks from Republicans accusing Swalwell of being a national security risk.
“If you got the briefing I got from the FBI, you wouldn’t have Swalwell on any committee,” McCarthy told reporters this month.
Fact-checkers have repeatedly found the GOP accusations to be false. And Democrats maintain that McCarthy’s threats are just another of the many concessions he had to make to the conservative detractors who fought to deny him the gavel earlier in the month.
“This is Kevin McCarthy once again catering to the most right-wing elements of his conference and doing the will of the former president as well,” Schiff said Monday in an interview with MSNBC. “It’s just a further destruction of our norms and, I think, deterioration of our democracy.”
Jeffries, in his letter to McCarthy, sought to distinguish between each party’s standards when it comes to committee evictions, noting that both Greene and Gosar were removed by a vote of the full House after revelations that they had promoted violence against Democrats. Both votes, Jeffries emphasized, had some Republican support.
“This action was taken by both Democrats and Republicans given the seriousness of the conduct involved, particularly in the aftermath of a violent insurrection and attack on the Capitol,” Jeffries wrote. “It does not serve as precedent or justification for the removal of Representatives Schiff and Swalwell, given that they have never exhibited violent thoughts or behavior.”
In nominating the California Democrats, Jeffries went out of his way to force McCarthy’s hand.
Under Intelligence Committee rules, rank-and-file members are limited to four cycles — a cap Swalwell has hit — meaning that Jeffries could have simply replaced Swalwell with a less controversial Democrat. Instead, he waived the term limit in order to force McCarthy to take the aggressive step of intervening to block Swalwell from the panel. Schiff, as ranking member, is exempt from the cap.
It’s unclear when McCarthy will announce the expected decision to block the pair. The Speaker was in Florida on Monday for an annual gathering of GOP leaders. A spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.
Separately, the House Democratic Steering and Policy Committee is scheduled to meet this week to finalize the party’s committee rosters, including the expected move to put Omar, one of three Muslim lawmakers in Congress, on the Foreign Affairs panel, according to several sources familiar with the Democrats’ plans.
The Minnesota Democrat, a Somali refugee, has been highly critical of the Israeli government and its supporters, particularly on issues related to human rights in Palestine, leading to charges of antisemitism. In one 2019 episode, Omar was forced to apologize after suggesting wealthy Jews are buying congressional support for Israel.
Unlike the Intelligence panel, the members of the Foreign Affairs Committee are chosen by each party and ratified by the full House, meaning McCarthy cannot unilaterally block Omar from taking her seat. Instead, GOP leaders are expected to remove her from the panel on the House floor, as was the case with Greene and Gosar.