The United States House of Representatives on Tuesday defeated impeachment charges against Alejandro N. Mayorkas, the homeland security secretary, after a small group of Republicans broke with their party and refused to support what amounted to a partisan indictment of President Biden’s immigration policies.
The failure of the effort was a stunning setback for Speaker Mike Johnson, who had vowed to indict Mr. Mayorkas and expressed confidence that he had the backing to charge him with high crimes and misdemeanors for failing to lock down the United States border with Mexico amid a migrant surge. House Republicans have been promising to do so for more than a year.
In an extraordinary and chaotic scene on the House floor, Republican leaders at first seemed to have clinched a victory, despite three G.O.P. defections by Representatives Ken Buck of Colorado, Mike Gallagher of Wisconsin and Tom McClintock of California — only to have it slip through their grasp when Representative Al Green, a Texas Democrat recovering from abdominal surgery, showed up in his hospital garb to vote.
Republican leaders held the vote open for several minutes, scrambling to corral the necessary support for the charges as Democrats jeered and yelled “Order! Order!” and the tally hovered at a tie. In the end, they could not overcome the opposition, and the measure failed by a vote of 216 to 214.
Last week, the House Homeland Security Committee approved two articles that charged Mr. Mayorkas with refusing to comply with the law and breaching the public trust. But it was only over the past few weeks that Republican leaders, under pressure from the hard right, rushed the impeachment through the committee and to the floor — without ever ensuring they had the requisite support to pass it given their minuscule House majority.
There were signs leading up to Tuesday’s vote that the outcome was in doubt. As it drew near, some Republicans began airing their reservations about impeaching a cabinet secretary for carrying out the policies of the administration he serves.
“Secretary Mayorkas is guilty of maladministration of our immigration laws on a cosmic scale, but we know that’s not grounds for impeachment, because the American founders specifically rejected it,” Mr. McClintock said on the House floor, explaining his opposition to the charges. Cabinet secretaries, he added, “can be impeached for committing a crime relating to their office, but not for carrying out presidential policy. This border crisis can’t be fixed by replacing one left-wing official with another.”
Mr. Buck had signaled for weeks that he opposed the move. And other Republicans, including Mr. Gallagher, had expressed concerns to their colleagues privately but refused to publicize how they would vote.
Their opposition put them in line with Democrats, former secretaries of homeland security and constitutional law experts — including several conservatives — who had condemned the charges. They argued that Republicans were trying to spin a policy dispute into a constitutional indictment, with no evidence that Mr. Mayorkas’s conduct rose to the level of high crimes and misdemeanors.
“We have serious problems at the border — no one denies that — but these are not serious people,” said Representative Adam B. Schiff, Democrat of California and a lead prosecutor during the House Democrats’ first impeachment of former President Donald J. Trump. “This impeachment is baseless, it is unconstitutional and it should be defeated.”
Republicans’ failed effort at impeachment in the House unfolded as they cheered on the demise of a Senate effort to pass a bipartisan national security supplemental package that would crack down on border crossings. For weeks, Mr. Johnson has been warning that the Senate bill, which Mr. Mayorkas helped to negotiate, would be dead on arrival in the House. That dissuaded many Senate Republicans from supporting the measure, which was expected to fail in a test vote on Wednesday.
Democrats, accusing Republicans of taking their marching orders from Mr. Trump, warned that G.O.P. members would suffer political consequences for trying to impeach Mr. Mayorkas, which they said amounted to pursuing a political vendetta, instead of working on bipartisan legislation to improve border security.
“You really want to impeach Joe Biden, but you realized that that is politically unpopular,” Representative Hakeem Jeffries, Democrat of New York and the minority leader, said on the floor.
“You will live with this like a scarlet letter,” he told Republicans, adding that Mr. Mayorkas should treat the impeachment “like a badge of honor because it’s worthless, it means nothing, it’s fake, it’s fraudulent and it’s foolish.”
It was unclear how Republicans planned to regroup after the defeat, given how much capital leaders had placed on pursuing the impeachment charges — and how politically important the issue of the border is expected to be for the G.O.P. in an election year.
As of late Tuesday night, House Republican leaders had not given up on impeaching Mr. Mayorkas, and were making plans at a second attempt in the near future. But the only likely way to achieve a different outcome would be if Representative Steve Scalise, Republican of Louisiana and the majority leader who is going through cancer treatment and missed Tuesday’s vote, is present.
“This is not the end of our efforts to hold Secretary Mayorkas accountable,” Representative Mark E. Green, Republican of Tennessee and the chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, said in a statement late Tuesday. “I look forward to Leader Scalise’s return.”
At the tail end of the vote, Representative Blake D. Moore, Republican of Utah, switched his vote to “no” and then moved to reconsider the matter, which would allow leaders to bring it up again at another time.
“The truth is, the extreme MAGA Republicans running the House of Representatives don’t want solutions, they want a political issue,” Representative Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, the top Democrat on the homeland security panel, said on the floor. Mr. Thompson denounced the Mayorkas impeachment as a ploy “to distort the Constitution and the secretary’s record to cover up their inability and unwillingness to work with Democrats to strengthen border security.”
Critics of the case pointed out that trying to remove the secretary was unlikely to bring about a change in the Biden administration’s border policies, and would not suddenly equip officials with the powers and resources they needed to do a more effective job at carrying out the nation’s border enforcement laws.
On Tuesday, a bipartisan group of three former secretaries of homeland security — Michael Chertoff, who served under President George W. Bush, and Janet Napolitano and Jeh Johnson — admonished Republicans for focusing on impeachment instead of working to pass laws to improve the border.
“Impeaching Secretary Mayorkas solves nothing and leaves our outdated immigration system exactly where it is now — broken,” they wrote. “We urge you to set aside this groundless impeachment effort and get back to solving America’s real problems.”
Their argument that removing Mr. Mayorkas from office would do little to remedy the problems at the border seemed to resonate even with some of the Republicans who voted in favor of impeaching him.
“Today we are in fact impeaching a pawn,” Representative Darrell Issa, Republican of California, said of Mr. Mayorkas on the floor, adding, “He is just part of the high crimes and misdemeanors of the president of the United States.”
The first article of impeachment accused Mr. Mayorkas of replacing Trump-era policies, such as the program commonly called Remain in Mexico, which required many migrants to wait at the southwestern border for their immigration court dates, with “catch and release” policies that allowed migrants to roam free in the United States. Republicans charged that Mr. Mayorkas ignored multiple mandates of the Immigration and Nationality Act, which states that migrants “shall be detained” pending decisions on asylum and removal orders, and acted beyond his authority to parole migrants into the country.
Democrats pushed back forcefully, noting that Mr. Mayorkas, like previous homeland security secretaries, had the right to set policies to manage the waves of migrants arriving at the border. That includes allowing certain migrants into the country temporarily on humanitarian grounds and prioritizing which migrants to detain, particularly when working with limited resources.
The second article accused Mr. Mayorkas of breaching the public trust by misrepresenting the state of the border, and stymieing congressional efforts to investigate him. Republicans base those accusations on an assertion by Mr. Mayorkas in 2022 that his department had “operational control” over the border, which is defined under a 2006 statute as the absence of any unlawful crossings of migrants or drugs. Mr. Mayorkas has said he was referring instead to a less absolute definition used by the Border Patrol.
They also accuse Mr. Mayorkas of having failed to produce documents, including materials he was ordered to give them under subpoena, during an investigation into his border policies and evading their efforts to get him to testify as part of their impeachment proceedings. Administration officials have countered that Mr. Mayorkas has produced tens of thousands of pages of documents in accordance with the panel’s requests. He offered to testify in person, but Republicans on the panel rescinded their invitation for him to appear after the two sides encountered scheduling problems.
Drivers of the impeachment effort nonetheless sought to heap blame at Mr. Mayorkas’s feet during the floor debate on Tuesday.
“He’s guilty of aiding and abetting the complete invasion of our country by criminals, gang members, terrorists, murderers, rapists and over 10 million people from 160 countries into American communities all across the United States,” Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, Republican of Georgia, said on the floor, in one of the most incendiary statements of the debate.
A spokeswoman for the Department of Homeland Security excoriated those attacks and the entire impeachment venture as pointless.
“This baseless impeachment should never have moved forward,” said the spokeswoman, Mia Ehrenberg, adding, “If House Republicans are serious about border security, they should abandon these political games and instead support the bipartisan national security agreement in the Senate.”
Luke Broadwater and Catie Edmondson contributed reporting.