POLITICS
12/23/2014 02:44 pm ET Updated Dec 23, 2014

Michael Grimm Felony Plea Poses Challenge For John Boehner

WASHINGTON -- House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) was hoping to start 2015 on a positive note, but the felony plea deal copped Tuesday by Rep. Michael Grimm (R-N.Y.) is posing an immediate challenge.

January will mark the first time since 2006 that the GOP has control of both houses of Congress, and Boehner will be at the helm of the House's largest GOP majority since the 1930s. He and his Senate counterpart, soon-to-be Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), are hoping to show that Republicans can be trusted to govern.

But Grimm made clear soon after his conviction that Boehner would first have to deal with him, saying he did not intend to resign despite the felony charge.

"Everything we're talking about here happened before I was in Congress, and for the past four years I've been a very effective, strong member of Congress that has served the people of Staten Island very well," Grimm said Tuesday. "I think the proof of that is the will of the people. Ultimately the will of the people will speak."

Even before Grimm pleaded guilty in a Brooklyn federal courthouse, Democrats were using his case as a cudgel to pound away at Boehner's leadership.

“Speaker Boehner has let this go on long enough. It's past time for Michael Grimm to go and it's John Boehner’s responsibility to make it happen," said Josh Schwerin, a spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, in a statement released hours before Grimm's plea.

"Speaker Boehner and Republican leaders' continued complicity in letting Michael Grimm stay in Congress despite his guilt of felony tax evasion is a disservice to the people of Staten Island and Brooklyn and a stain on the institution of the United States House of Representatives," Schwerin added. "After Speaker Boehner abetted Grimm's lies to voters about his guilt in this past election, he owes it to the constituents and the Congress to make sure Michael Grimm doesn't serve in this next Congress."

But forcing Grimm out is not a simple matter. Congressional legal experts say Boehner cannot deny Grimm the opportunity to be seated at the start of the 114th Congress. All he can really do is pressure Grimm to quit.

"That’s just political suasion that’s not legally enforceable," said Stan Brand, who was the House's top lawyer when Rep. Charlie Diggs (D-Mich.) was convicted in a kickback scheme in 1978. Diggs was re-elected shortly after he was found guilty, and stayed in Congress until he had to leave to serve jail time.

Michael Steel, Boehner's spokesman, said via email that the speaker was not prepared to say what he planned to do about Grimm.

"We won't have any announcements until the Speaker discusses the matter with Mr. Grimm," Steel said.

Grimm's advisers had signaled to local press outlets that the congressman might not go quietly into political retirement. As a result, Republicans were at least prepared in advance to push back against Democrats' inevitable attack that the GOP was keeping a convicted felon among its ranks.

One senior GOP aide, speaking anonymously because Boehner had not yet announced a course of action, made sure to point out that there was precedent -- even within the Democratic caucus led by Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) -- for not pushing out a member in legal trouble.

"After standing behind Reps. Bill Jefferson, Charlie Rangel, Jack Murtha, and many others, Rep. Pelosi has zero credibility of these issues," the aide said in an email.

Still, it's an issue that Democrats are certain not to drop. When the party won the House in the 2006 election, it did so in part by running against the GOP's "culture of corruption." This line of attack was a response to a number of high-profile political convictions among Republicans, including that of lobbyist Jack Abramoff and Rep. Duke Cunningham (R-Calif.).

Grimm's sentencing was set for June 8, guaranteeing that he will be free and able to serve in Congress at least until then.

Michael McAuliff covers Congress and politics for The Huffington Post. Talk to him on Facebook.

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