WASHINGTON (AP) — In his closing arguments for remaining a member of the House, a defiant Rep. George Santos depicted himself as a victim of a smear campaign by some of his colleagues and made clear that he would not resign before a vote Friday on whether he should be expelled.

The first-term Republican congressman from New York could well become just the sixth member of the House to have been ousted by colleagues. While Santos survived two earlier expulsion efforts, a critical House Ethics Committee report released on Nov. 16 has convinced more members that his actions merit the House’s most severe punishment.

“I will not stand by quietly,” Santos said during Thursday afternoon’s debate on the House floor. “The people of the Third District of New York sent me here. If they want me out, you’re going to have to go silence those people and go take the hard vote.”

Of the previous expulsions in the House, three were for disloyalty to the Union during the Civil War and two were for lawmakers convicted in federal court. Santos appealed to those lawmakers who worry that a new precedent is being set for the chamber’s harshest punishment.

“This will haunt them in the future where mere allegations are sufficient to have members removed from office when duly elected by their people in their respective states and districts,” Santos said during a press conference held early in the morning before House debate began.

Santos was a bright spot for the GOP when he won his election in November 2022, flipping a seat that had been held by the Democrats and helping Republicans take control of the House. But, soon after, reports began to emerge that Santos had lied about having Jewish ancestry, a career at top Wall Street firms and a college degree. He turned into a distraction and an embarrassment to his party.

In early March, the House Ethics Committee announced it was launching an investigation into Santos. That was followed in May when the U.S. attorney’s office for the Eastern District of New York unveiled a 13-count federal indictment that was later replaced with the 23-count indictment.

The indictment alleges he stole the identities of campaign donors and then used their credit cards to make tens of thousands of dollars in unauthorized charges. Federal prosecutors say Santos, who has pleaded not guilty, wired some of the money to his personal bank account and used the rest to pad his campaign coffers.

Meanwhile, Ethics Committee investigators spent eight months on the Santos case. The panel said it amassed “overwhelming evidence” of lawbreaking by Santos that it sent to the Justice Department. Among other things, the panel said that Santos knowingly caused his campaign committee to file false or incomplete reports with the Federal Election Commission, used campaign funds for personal purposes and violated the Ethics in Government Act with his financial disclosure statements.

The disgraceful association that comes with expulsion was not lost on Santos. But rather than seek to avoid it by resigning, he sought to frame it as an unfair persecution, saying “if I leave, they win. If I leave, the bullies take place. This is bullying.”

Members of the Republican delegation from New York led the arguments for expelling Santos. Rep. Anthony D’Esposito, R-N.Y., acknowledged that the expulsion would set a new precedent, but he said he was confident the American people would welcome lawmakers being held to a higher standard.

“I’m pretty confident the American people would applaud that. I’m pretty confident that the American people expect that, and I hope that tomorrow, in this great chamber, we set that precedent,” D’Esposito said.

Arguing against expulsion, Rep. Clay Higgins, R-La., said that while he respects the Ethics Committee, he had concerns about how the Santos case was handled. He said he was troubled that a Republican-led committee would submit a report that was so judgmental and publicized.

“The totality of circumstance appears biased,” Higgins said. “It stinks of politics and I’ll oppose this action in every way.”

While the Ethics Committee does have a Republican chairman, its membership is evenly divided. Rep. Susan Wild, the ranking Democrat on the committee, reminded members that the decision approving the investigators’ findings was unanimous.

“As the Ethics Committee’s report lays out in thorough detail, Mr. Santos has repeatedly, egregiously and brazenly violated the public’s trust,” Wild said. “Mr. Santos is not a victim. He is a perpetrator of a massive fraud on his constituents and the American people.”

In his press conference, Santos assailed the Ethics Committee report as “littered in hyperbole, littered in opinion.” He emphasized the decision by the committee to submit the report to the House without making a recommendation on punishment. Submitting a recommendation would have required a longer, trial-like process. “Changing precedent for me, it seems that it’s all fair game,” Santos said.

House Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., said he had “real reservations” about the expulsion of Santos. He said he was concerned about the precedent it would set, but he also said that GOP leadership is telling members to “vote their conscience.”

Democratic leader Hakeem Jeffries of New York held his weekly press conference with a massive photo next to him of Santos and Republican Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia sitting in the House chamber together and laughing.

“George Santos is a malignant distraction, and hopefully that issue gets resolved,” Jeffries said.

___

Associated Press staff writer Farnoush Amiri contributed to this report.

___

Follow the AP’s coverage of U.S. Rep. George Santos of New York at https://apnews.com/hub/george-santos.