House Republicans fail to impeach Biden’s homeland security secretary

House Republicans on Tuesday narrowly failed to impeach homeland security secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, a stinging – but possibly only temporary – setback for the majority’s deeply partisan effort to punish a cabinet official in a presidential election year.

In a vote of 216-214, four Republicans joined all Democrats in opposing the two articles of impeachment against the secretary. When the gavel came down, Democrats burst into applause, having assailed the impeachment case against Mayorkas as a “bunch of garbage” designed to boost Donald Trump’s electoral prospects in the November election.

In a sign that Tuesday’s defeat may only be temporary: Republican Congressman Blake Moore of Utah supports the impeachment effort but switched his “yes” vote to a “no” in a procedural move that would allow the motion to be brought up to the floor again at a later date.

Related: ‘Show a little courage’: Biden attacks Republicans for ‘caving’ to Trump on US-Mexico border security bill

Republicans sought to impeach Mayorkas on charges that he willfully refused to enforce immigration law, resulting in record levels of migration at the US’s southern border, and “breached the public trust” by his actions. The historic vote would have marked the first time since 1876 that the House has impeached a cabinet official, but with hours to go before a scheduled evening vote its prospects dimmed.

With Republicans in control of the House by a whisker-thin margin, and Democrats uniformly opposed, they could only afford a handful of defections. Two Republicans had already announced their opposition in advance of the vote, then on the floor, the Republican congressman Mike Gallagher of Wisconsin, cast the decisive vote.

The roll call vote unfolded in dramatic fashion, with the vote suspended in a 215-215 tie for several minutes and Democrats shouting for chair to close the vote. Republicans say they will attempt to vote again on impeachment, possibly as soon as next week, but next steps are uncertain.

Steve Scalise, the House majority leader, who has been receiving cancer treatment, was absent for Tuesday’s vote but is expected to return to work soon. His support would likely be enough to impeach Mayorkas, without any further defections. Even so, the secretary is highly unlikely to be convicted in the Senate, which is controlled by Democrats. Even some Republican senators have dismissed the charges against Mayorkas.

Earlier on Tuesday, Tom McClintock, a California Republican congressman, outlined his opposition in a lengthy memo in which he argues that the articles of impeachment “fail to identify an impeachable crime that Mayorkas has committed”.

“In effect, they stretch and distort the Constitution in order to hold the administration accountable for stretching and distorting the law,” he wrote.

Congressman Ken Buck, the retiring Colorado Republican who declared himself solidly opposed to the impeachment effort, said the accusations leveled against Mayorkas amounted to a “policy difference”, not an impeachable offense.

“If we start going down this path of impeachment with a cabinet official, we are opening a door as Republicans that we don’t want to open,” Buck said on MSNBC shortly before the afternoon vote.

In their rush to impeach Mayorkas, Republicans overrode the objections of Democrats and legal experts, including some prominent conservatives, who say they have failed to produce compelling evidence that the cabinet secretary had committed high crimes and misdemeanors, the constitution’s bar for impeachment.

“I respect everybody’s view on it,” House speaker Mike Johnson told reporters before the vote on Tuesday. “I understand the heavy weight that impeachment is.”

He described impeachment as an “extreme measure”, but said that “extreme times call for extreme measures.”

During the floor debate on Tuesday, Republicans leveled broad accusations that Mayorkas had mismanaged oversight of the US-Mexico border, where arrests for illegal crossings have reached record highs.

“The constituents I represent do not understand why Texas has had to endure basically an invasion during the tenure of the secretary of Homeland Security,” Congressman Michael Burgess, Republican of Texas, said in floor remarks ahead of the procedural vote. “What are we left to do?”

Democrats, meanwhile, accused Republicans of abusing the impeachment process to attack Joe Biden’s handling of the border ahead of an election in which immigration could play a key role. A Harvard-Harris survey conducted this month showed that immigration is now an important concern for voters, with 35% of respondents citing the issue as their top priority. But Democrats say that the Republican impeachment effort is a political stunt rather than meaningful reform.

“Do we have a problem at the border? Absolutely,” said Democratic congressman Jim McGovern of Massachusetts. But, he said: “It’s clear that this is not about Secretary Mayorkas or a high crime and misdemeanor. It is about a policy disagreement with President Biden.”

Trump has made the “crisis” at the border a focus of his presidential campaign and celebrated Republicans for impeaching Mayorkas on shaky grounds.

Mayorkas, a former federal prosecutor, never testified but mounted a forceful defense in a letter to Congressman Mark Green, a Tennessee Republican and chair of the committee on homeland security, where the impeachment articles originated. In it, the secretary declared: “Your false accusations do not rattle me and do not divert me from the law enforcement and broader public service mission to which I have devoted most of my career.”

Across the Capitol, a border security deal recently brokered by the Biden administration and a bipartisan group of senators teetered on the brink of collapse, with nearly all of the Republican conference aligned against it. After months of painstaking negotiations, the Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell told reporters on Tuesday that he saw “no real chance here to make a law” despite his support for the proposal.

Even if the bill had a chance in the Senate, its fate was sealed in the House, where Johnson had already announced the proposal “dead on arrival”.

Earlier on Tuesday, Biden implored congressional Republicans to “show a little spine” and advance the legislation, which pairs a border clamp down with billions of dollars in aid to Ukraine and Israel. In pointed remarks, Biden accused Trump, his predecessor and likely Republican rival in November, of tanking the deal and risking US national security for political gain.

“All indications are this bill won’t even move forward to the Senate floor,” Biden said in a speech televised from the White House. “Why? A simple reason. Donald Trump. Because Donald Trump thinks this is bad for him politically.”

Constitutional scholars and legal experts have argued that Republicans’ case against Mayorkas amounts to a policy dispute over a Democratic president’s handling of US border policy.

Jonathan Turley, a conservative commentator and legal scholar, said Republicans had uncovered “no current evidence that he is corrupt or committed an impeachable offense”, while Alan Dershowitz, Trump’s defense attorney during his first impeachment trial, wrote that Republicans were attempting to impeach Mayorkas on “vague and unconstitutional grounds”.

“Whatever else Mayorkas may or may not have done, he has not committed bribery, treason, or high crimes and misdemeanors,” Dershowitz wrote in an op-ed for the Hill newspaper. The conservative Wall Street Journal editorial board took a similar view, questioning whether Republicans intended to use their majority to “accomplish anything other than impeaching Democrats”.

Three former secretaries of the Department of Homeland Security, including Michael Chertoff, who served under George W Bush and Janet Napolitano and Jeh Johnson, who served under Barack Obama, said in a letter released before Tuesday’s vote that impeaching a cabinet official over “political disagreements” would “jeopardize our national security”.

“Impeaching Secretary Mayorkas solves nothing and leaves our outdated immigration system exactly where it is now – broken,” they wrote.

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