By Melanie Zanona, Ryan Nobles and Annie Grayer, CNN
The vast majority of House Republicans are expected to oppose an effort to hold Donald Trump ally Steve Bannon in contempt of Congress for defying a subpoena, brushing aside concerns about weakening the institution’s future oversight authority and rejecting accusations that they’re trying to block Democrats from getting to the bottom of the January 6 insurrection.
During a closed-door conference meeting Wednesday morning, GOP leaders recommended that Republicans vote “no” on the criminal contempt referral for Bannon, according to a source inside the room. While that falls short of a formal whip operation, it shows leadership is leaning in hard against the resolution. And just a handful of Republicans are considering supporting the criminal contempt referral when it comes up for a floor vote on Thursday.
GOP House leadership officially informed their members of their recommendation to vote against holding Bannon in contempt of Congress in an email Wednesday evening.
Republican Rep. Tom Rice of South Carolina, who voted to impeach Trump for inciting the deadly riot, is undecided but told CNN “there’s a lot of weakness” in Bannon’s legal argument for not cooperating. Freshman Rep. Peter Meijer of Michigan, who also voted for impeachment, told CNN that it’s “essential that Congress has a subpoena ability” but that he needs to review the resolution before making a determination.
And Rep. Don Bacon of Nebraska, who represents a Biden-won district and backed an unsuccessful effort to form a bipartisan commission to investigate the US Capitol insurrection on January 6, said he’s torn because he’s “not a fan of Bannon” but he’s also “not a fan of the select committee.”
Just two Republicans — Reps. Liz Cheney of Wyoming and Adam Kinzinger of Illinois — supported the creation of the select committee investigating January 6. Both of them now serve on the panel and voted in favor of the resolution to hold Bannon in contempt during the committee markup.
GOP leaders are arguing that all of the panel’s work is tainted, and that their request for documents and depositions is overly broad and lacks a legitimate legislative purpose. Under the proposed bipartisan commission, Republicans would have gotten veto power over any subpoenas.
“You can do this if you’re legislating. This isn’t about legislating,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy told reporters. He added that Democrats are the ones weakening Congress’ oversight powers “by not walking through the steps” and by “going beyond” the House’s authorities.
House Minority Whip Steve Scalise echoed a similar sentiment, and suggested that few Republicans would support the criminal contempt referral. “This whole commission started off as a very partisan exercise… You’re seeing most members get tired of the witch hunts and the games,” the Louisiana Republican said.
Democrats, however, don’t need any GOP votes in order to refer a criminal contempt charge to the Justice Department, which will ultimately decide whether to bring charges that could result in jail time or fines. And of all the witnesses sought by the select committee so far, Bannon likely has the least legal standing to defy a subpoena on the grounds of executive privilege, since he was not a White House employee at the time of the riot. Bannon also doesn’t have many allies in the House Republican Conference, despite his close connections to Trump.
But for many Republicans, opposing criminal contempt for Bannon is about something much broader: it’s a way to set the tone and potentially lay the groundwork for them to contest any future contempt charges brought against defiant witnesses — a scenario that could eventually impact some of their own colleagues, including McCarthy.
Rep. Rodney Davis of Illinois had voted in favor of the bipartisan independent commission and had been one of McCarthy’s picks for the select committee — before House Speaker Nancy Pelosi vetoed the Republican leader’s selection of Reps. Jim Banks and Jim Jordan, leading McCarthy to pull all of his selections from the committee.
Davis told CNN he was a firm “no” on the Bannon criminal contempt referral and said it was the select committee itself that he was opposed to.
“The whole select committee process is a joke and it has been from the beginning,” the Republican said.
Many Republicans appear to be using a blanket disapproval of the committee as a reason for voting against the Bannon contempt referral. In a meeting of the Rules Committee on Wednesday, Republicans argued that the select committee is being used as a way for Democrats to expose their GOP rivals — like Trump and McCarthy — to criminal prosecutions.
“This isn’t about Mr. McCarthy’s discussions, this isn’t about his perspective, this isn’t about his votes or his speeches. This is about setting up, people like Steve Bannon and Kevin McCarthy for criminal process, and the American people need to know that,” said Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida, during his testimony in front of the Rules Committee. “That that has begun now. It began in that committee, and this is another step along the way to criminalize political activity.”
Gaetz and Jordan both claimed that the select committee was not in search of the truth, but instead looking to settle political vendettas — an argument Democratic Rep. Jamie Raskin, a member of the select panel, called “sinister.”
“This to me was, was among the most sinister and cynical arguments we heard today. They were saying that our bipartisan committee is somehow involved in a partisan effort,” the Maryland Democrat said. “Well, they had the opportunity to vote for a bipartisan commission that was negotiated by Bennie Thompson and by Republican John Katko from New York.”
Still, for a handful of other GOP members — especially those who condemned Trump’s role in the January 6 insurrection — it’s proving to be a harder decision. They don’t want to be seen as supporting a probe viewed as partisan, but they also don’t want to be seen as approving Bannon’s behavior.
GOP Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler of Washington state, who voted to impeach Trump and was almost brought in as a witness during the former President’s Senate trial, said she was still weighing her decision.
Rep. Dan Newhouse, her fellow Washington State lawmaker who also backed impeachment, said he is still considering his options: “I’m still looking at … whether it’s a proper thing for Congress to be doing.”
Republican Reps. Fred Upton of Michigan, who voted in favor of impeachment; John Katko of New York, who brokered a deal on the bipartisan commission; and Brian Fitzpatrick, co-chair of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus, are all still undecided. Meanwhile, retiring Rep. Anthony Gonzalez of Ohio, another impeachment backer, is holding his cards close: “We’ll see,” he told CNN.
And Rep. Dusty Johnson of South Dakota said he was close to making a decision on his vote but needed more information.
“I want to do a little more historical research,” Johnson said. “I read the 1957 Supreme Court case that outlined this issue, but I want to go on to do a little more research.”
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CNN’s Manu Raju contributed to this report.