CNN  — 

The House voted on Wednesday to refer a Democrat-led resolution to expel Rep. George Santos to the Ethics Committee, a move that allowed Republicans to avoid weighing in directly on the politically perilous question of expulsion for the embattled New York Republican.

California Democratic Rep. Robert Garcia introduced a privileged resolution this week to expel Santos from Congress. When the resolution came up for floor consideration, Republicans made a motion to refer it to the House Ethics Committee, triggering a vote on whether to send the resolution to the panel instead of a vote directly on the expulsion measure itself.

A vote to expel Santos would be politically perilous for House Republicans. Republicans control only a narrow majority and cannot afford to lose more than a handful of votes to pass legislation. The party also wants to hold onto Santos’ seat, a key New York swing district.

At the same time, Democrats would seize on the votes of any GOP lawmaker who voted against expulsion and seek to tie them directly to Santos.

The move to refer the resolution, which required a simple majority to succeed, passed on a party-line vote of 221-204-7.

Seven members voted “present,” including Reps. Susan Wild, Veronica Escobar, Mark DeSaulnier, Deborah Ross and Glenn Ivey. They are the five Democratic members that serve on the Ethics Committee. Chrissy Houlahan of Pennsylvania and Marie Glusenkamp Perez of Washington also voted present.

Santos voted in favor of referring the resolution to expel him to the ethics panel.

A vote to expel a lawmaker requires a two-thirds majority in the House – 290 votes – a threshold not expected to be met if the resolution did come to an up-or-down vote.

As Democrats have pushed for expulsion, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy has said he wants the Ethics Committee to “move rapidly” on its investigation of Santos.

“I think we can look at this very quickly and come to a conclusion on what George Santos did and did not do through ethics, a safe bipartisan committee,” McCarthy told reporters Tuesday, adding: “I would like the Ethics Committee to move rapidly on this.”

Santos, in a hastily arranged gathering on the Capitol steps following the vote, thanked Republican leadership “for allowing this procedure.”

“If the Ethics Committee finds a reason to remove me, that is the process. This isn’t about politics,” he told reporters, adding later, “I think that this was the right decision for all of us. And I look forward to continuing to defend myself. Again, innocent until proven guilty. That is a right that we all have.”

He insisted he would not resign when asked by CNN how he could adequately represent his district if he can’t serve on committees and is under investigation: “I was elected by them to come represent them. I will continue to do that. I have not not done my job since I’ve gotten here.”

Santos added that he has not yet met with the ethics panel, saying, “It’s an ongoing investigation, but no, I did not. I did not appear before the Ethics Committee.”

The gaggle ended when lawmakers from both parties began exchanging heckling comments.

Santos under scrutiny

The House Ethics Committee announced in March that it was officially moving forward with a probe into Santos as the New York Republican faced mounting legal issues and calls to resign for extensively lying about his resume and biography.

The committee said that it voted to set up an investigative subcommittee with authority to look into a number of issues, including whether Santos may have engaged in unlawful activity related to his 2022 congressional campaign. A tweet from the congressman’s Twitter account said at the time that he was “fully cooperating” in the probe and would not comment further.

Separately, Santos was recently indicted and pleaded not guilty to 13 federal charges, including allegations of fraud related to Covid-19 unemployment benefits, misusing campaign funds and lying about his personal finances on House disclosure reports.

In a news conference after his arraignment, Santos said that he had been “compliant throughout this entire process” but blasted the indictment as a “witch hunt” and said he will “fight my battle.”

The charges injected fresh uncertainty into the political future of Santos, a freshman congressman whose lies and fabrications stunned even hardened politicos and led top Democrats and some New York Republicans to call for his resignation earlier this year.

The congressman has said that he will not resign from his seat and that he still plans to seek reelection next year.

The Ethics Committee will continue to investigate both the criminal allegations and the ethical issues surrounding Santos regardless of the Department of Justice’s separate investigation, a source familiar with the matter told CNN. According to the source, the department informs the committee when they’re investigating some of the issues but that doesn’t require the committee to yield to the Justice Department.

McCarthy indicated Wednesday he doesn’t want the House Ethics Committee to wait to see what the Justice Department does in the case against Santos, saying, “I want our Ethics Committee to do their job.” McCarthy said he is going to tell the committee to move forward regardless of any requests by the DOJ.

“I don’t want to wait around for how long the court case could take. I’d rather have Ethics take a look at it,” he said, repeatedly shaking his head ‘no’ when CNN’s Manu Raju asked him if the committee would defer to Justice, as has happened with indicted members in the past.

Garcia, who introduced the resolution to expel Santos, sent a letter on Friday to McCarthy asking for a public timeline for the ethics investigation.

“Given your promises of swift action by the Ethics Committee, I hope that you will clarify the timeline by which we can expect the Ethics Committee to ‘move rapidly’ so that the House can take a transparent vote on whether Mr. Santos deserves to continue to serve as a member of this body,” he wrote.

Democrats call on Republicans to back expulsion

Democrats urged their Republican colleagues Wednesday ahead of the vote to back their effort to expel Santos from Congress and said if Republicans instead back the push to refer the motion to the ethics panel, they are “complicit in George Santos’ fraud.”

Rep. Dan Goldman of New York called on his Republican colleagues to “walk the talk” on ousting Santos.

“The Republicans, especially the members of the Republican Party from New York, where I am from, where George Santos is from, have called for his expulsion. There is now an opportunity for them to walk the talk and to make a vote consistent with their words,” he said. “To every member of the Republican conference from New York, I say to you, if you vote for this motion to refer it to the Ethics Committee, you are complicit in George Santos’ fraud and you are voting to make sure that he continues to be a member of Congress.”

“It’s time to get members on the record,” Vermont Democratic Rep. Becca Balint said.

This story has been updated with additional developments.

CNN’s Morgan Rimmer, Manu Raju, Jack Forrest and Devan Cole contributed to this report.