The House on Wednesday punted the question of whether Rep. George Santos (R-N.Y.) should be removed from Congress, referring an expulsion resolution to the Ethics Committee and shielding Republican lawmakers from having to weigh in on the matter directly.

The chamber voted 221-204-7 to send the resolution to the Ethics panel, a largely redundant move since the committee has been investigating Santos since March amid mounting questions about his background and finances. The panel is looking into whether he engaged in unlawful activity during his 2022 campaign and failed to properly disclose information to the House, among other areas of inquiry.

All five Democrats on the Ethics Committee — Susan Wild (Pa.), Glenn Ivey (Md.), Veronica Escobar (Texas), Deborah Ross (N.C.), Mark DeSaulnier (Calif.) — voted present, as did Reps. Chrissy Houlahan (D-Pa.) and Marie Gluesenkamp Perez (D-Wash.). The remaining votes fell along party lines.

Santos voted with Republicans to refer the resolution to the Ethics Committee, telling reporters after the vote that he did so “because there’s a process — in this country, everybody is innocent until proven guilty.” He thanked leadership “for allowing this procedure.”

The congressman reaffirmed that he has and will continue to comply with the panel and said that if the committee ultimately recommends that he should resign, he will comply.

“Well, of course,” Santos said when asked if he will step down willingly if that is recommended by the panel. “I’m not chaining myself here. If the Ethics Committee makes that recommendation, that’s a different story.”

“I am confident that I will fight to clear my name,” he later said.

Rep. Robert Garcia (D-Calif.) introduced the expulsion resolution in February, but called the measure to the floor as a privileged resolution Tuesday — nearly one week after Santos was indicted on federal charges — in a move that forced Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) to take action on the measure within two legislative days.

McCarthy ultimately chose to hold a vote on referring the resolution to the Ethics Committee for consideration, which required a simple majority vote. He could have moved to table the measure, which would also require support from half the chamber, or bring the expulsion resolution to the floor for a vote, which would need a two-thirds majority for approval.

“I think the George Santos indictment is very serious,” McCarthy told reporters Tuesday. “I also know in America you’re innocent till proven guilty. But I don’t want to sit around and wait. So what I would like to do is move this to Ethics.”

He said he wanted the Ethics panel to examine the matter “quickly.” McCarthy has notably stopped short of calling on Santos to resign or be expelled; instead, he has underscored the need to let the legal process play out. The New York Republican has been a crucial vote in the GOP conference’s narrow majority, helping McCarthy deliver legislative wins.

Democrats, however, panned McCarthy’s decision as a “cop out” because the Ethics panel is already looking into Santos.

“It is a complete cop out to have a redundant motion to refer a resolution to an Ethics Committee that is already investigating this,” said Rep. Dan Goldman (D-N.Y.), who filed an ethics complaint against Santos earlier this year.

“We should not refer this matter to the Ethics Committee, this resolution is already there,” Garcia said Wednesday. “Now every Republican should stand up and join us to defend this body and expel George Santos.”

As Santos was addressing the press on the steps of the Capitol following the vote, Reps. Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.) and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) started yelling that the congressman should resign or be removed from Congress.

“Resign … save yourself, have some dignity,” Bowman said. “New Yorkers need better.”

“You gotta go man,” Ocasio-Cortez added.

Santos told reporters, “I can’t continue to address you guys ‘cause there’s a deranged member here, so I’m gonna walk.”

“Republicans, kick him out, c’mon,” Bowman said.

McCarthy’s decision to refer the resolution to the Ethics committee rather than bring it to the floor provided an off-ramp of sorts for some Republicans — especially those in the New York delegation — by allowing them to vote with the party without supporting Santos’s tenure in the House.

Reps. Anthony D’Esposito (R-N.Y.), Marc Molinaro (R-N.Y.) and Nick LaLota (R-N.Y.) announced earlier this year that they supported expulsion for the New York Republican, and Rep. Tony Gonzales (R-Texas) joined the ranks following Santos’s arraignments last week.

All four voted Wednesday to refer the matter to the Ethics panel.

“I will vote to begin the process of removing George Santos from this sacred institution by formally referring his case to the House Ethics Committee,” Molinaro, an expulsion proponent, said in a statement shortly before the vote. “George Santos should not be a Member of Congress. He has irrevocably lost the trust of his constituents and colleagues. I expect the Ethics Committee to conduct an immediate and swift review.”

Other New York Republicans — like Rep. Mike Lawler, who has called for Santos to resign but not be expelled — defended the process of shifting the matter to the Ethics Committee, noting that similar indictment cases in modern memory have not resulted in an immediate expulsion.

“Can any of you point to a single case where somebody’s been expelled from Congress without a conviction or a referral [from the Ethics Committee]?” he asked, which was followed by silence. “Right. So if the standard now is: A member of Congress lies — and by the way, he’s done a lot of lying — but if that’s the standard then there’s a lot of members that are gonna be expelled pretty quickly.”

Only five House members have ever been expelled, three of them in 1861. Most recently, former Rep. James Traficant (D-Ohio) was expelled in 2002 after being convicted of 10 federal charges, including bribery and racketeering.

Beyond political considerations, Lawler noted a practical reason for the GOP’s referral strategy: They simply lack the votes to oust Santos outright. That feat would require support from two-thirds of the chamber.

“The bottom line here is this: There’s not the votes to expel him,” Lawler said. “You need two-thirds to expel him. So rather than vote ‘no’ or vote to table it, we’re referring it to Ethics so that the Ethics Committee can come back, expeditiously, with an actual referral, so that members of Congress can vote him out. It’s pretty straightforward. There’s a process here. The Democrats are choosing, for political purposes, to circumvent that process.”

D’Esposito, who motioned to refer the resolution to the Ethics panel, sounded a similar note.

“I was one of the first members of this body to call on the subject of this resolution to resign, and I am personally in favor of this individual’s expulsion from this House. Regrettably, however, I am in the understanding that we are currently do not have the two-thirds support from members of this House to expel that individual,” he said on the House floor before the vote Wednesday.

“I believe that this individual is a stain on this institution, a stain on the state of New York, a stain on Long Island and a stain on the beloved Nassau County. With that said, we believe this resolution should be referred to the Committee on Ethics to ensure a thorough and expedient investigation into this matter. I firmly believe this is the quickest way [of] ridding the House of Representatives of this scourge on government,” he added.

Santos has been the target of controversy since before he was sworn into the House, when The New York Times published a bombshell report highlighting questionable aspects of his background. He later admitted to “embellishing” his resume.

That scrutiny hit a fever pitch last week, when prosecutors indicted Santos on 13 federal charges, including wire fraud, money laundering, theft of public funds and making materially false statements to the House of Representatives. He is accused of deceiving campaign donors, fraudulently receiving COVID-19 unemployment benefits and including false information on his financial disclosure forms.

The congressman pleaded not guilty and has said he does not plan to resign.

Also last week, Santos signed an agreement with public prosecutors in Brazil to avoid being prosecuted in a case related to an incident from 2008.

Mike Lillis contributed. Updated at 7:34 p.m.