The top House Republican leader moved Wednesday to keep his splintering party intact — declining to take concrete action against a freshman lawmaker whose extremist rhetoric prompted widespread outrage, while also moving to protect a senior party leader who faced calls for her ouster after backing Donald Trump’s impeachment.
On one hand, the party needs to regain its appeal with traditional Republicans — a wing of the party exemplified by Rep. Liz Cheney (Wyo.), the No. 3 House GOP leader and daughter of a former vice president who trashed Trump’s conduct surrounding the Jan. 6 Capitol riot. After McCarthy argued strongly on Cheney’s behalf in a private meeting Wednesday evening, Republicans voted 145 to 61 to reject a call for her resignation backed by Trump loyalists.
On the other hand, the GOP risks losing the support of Trump’s most fervent supporters, many of whom increasingly subscribe to outlandish, baseless claims — such as those espoused by Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), who is facing a Democratic-led vote Thursday on whether to expel her from committee assignments.
While McCarthy on Wednesday condemned Greene’s comments questioning the veracity of school shootings, encouraging political violence and promulgating anti-Semitic falsehoods, he said he would not bow to demands that she be removed from her committees. Instead, he accused Democrats of pursuing a “partisan power grab” by seeking to control the minority party’s internal decision-making.
“They chose to do something Congress has never done,” he told reporters.
McCarthy’s decision to turn the uproar over Greene into a partisan brawl rather than more strongly police the rhetoric inside the GOP ranks suggests he is determined to keep the Republican tent as big as possible as he seeks the House majority in the 2022 midterms — even if it risks more quarreling inside his ranks in the months and years ahead.
“You elected me leader, let me lead,” McCarthy told Republicans in his closing remarks on Cheney’s behalf, according to a GOP lawmaker inside the room. The speech prompted an ovation that could be heard from more than 50 feet away outside the room.
About an hour earlier, Greene had received an ovation of her own after expressing contrition for some of her most outrageous comments made on social media — including questioning the 9/11 attacks, blaming a space ray directed by a Jewish cabal for a deadly wildfire and doubting school shootings. She also, according to Republicans in the room, apologized for putting her colleagues in a difficult spot. The Republicans spoke on the condition of anonymity to relay the contents of a private meeting.
But, publicly, Greene has so far maintained a pugnacious posture toward her critics, adopting a Trump-like aversion to surrender.
“I won’t back down. I’ll never apologize. And I’ll always keep fighting for the people,” she tweeted Saturday.
On a podcast with right-wing provocateur Dinesh D’Souza published Wednesday, Greene took aim at GOP leaders for not standing more squarely behind her: “It’s me this week, and it’ll be someone else next week, and our leaders are too weak to stand up against it. That is why Republican voters will not vote for them anymore.”
In the face of McCarthy’s refusal to act against Greene, House Democrats moved to advance a measure stripping Greene of her committee assignments, setting up a floor vote Thursday. While members are occasionally removed from panels over allegations of misconduct, those decisions are typically made by their own party’s leadership.
House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) said Democrats were forced to act after McCarthy and other Republicans declined to do so on their own. Democrats acknowledged the unprecedented nature of the move but said it was necessary given the nature of Greene’s conduct.
“We have never had a member like this before,” said Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), the Rules Committee chairman. “This is truly sick stuff.”
Greene was elected last year after having embraced the baseless QAnon ideology during her campaign. She suggested in social media videos taped before her election to Congress that mass shootings were “false flag” events staged by gun-control advocates and has also made social media postings supporting calls for the assassination of prominent Democrats, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).
Those statements — some of which were only recently widely publicized — and the GOP’s decision last week to place Greene on the House education and budget committees have heightened calls for action from Democrats and sparked rising frustrations from Republicans who fear their entire party will be tarred by association.
“That’s not what the Republican Party stands for,” said Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), the chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee who served as governor during the 2018 mass shooting at a Parkland, Fla., high school that Greene has publicly questioned.
“What she said about Parkland is wrong, disgusting,” Scott added. “I was there an hour, just a few hours after it happened. I talked to the families that lost their loved ones. . . . She’s not going to be the face of the party, and it’s wrong, what she said.”
McCarthy met with Greene on Tuesday evening in his Capitol office, and McCarthy immediately afterward called a snap meeting of the House GOP steering committee, which recommends committee assignments, but the group took no action.
With Democrats threatening to advance a resolution stripping Greene from her panels, McCarthy and Hoyer spoke by phone Wednesday. McCarthy told reporters later in the day that he proposed moving Greene from the Education and Labor Committee, which has jurisdiction over school security, to the Small Business Committee.
Hoyer then announced that the vote to revoke Greene’s committee assignments entirely would move forward, saying in a statement that “it is clear there is no alternative.”
In a statement, McCarthy called his proposal a way to address the “deep wounds” caused by Greene’s comments and “a path to lower the temperature.”
“Instead of coming together to do that, the Democrats are choosing to raise the temperature by taking the unprecedented step to further their partisan power grab regarding the committee assignments of the other party,” he added.
Hoyer declined to detail his discussions with McCarthy to reporters but said that the House had an obligation to act.
“We’re not really concerned about it being an embarrassment to the [Republican] party, but we certainly are concerned about her being an embarrassment to the Congress of the United States,” he said, adding that in his 40 years of congressional service, he could not recall any comparable behavior.
Privately, Republican leaders and their aides have sought to rally their members around process arguments, arguing that it would set harmful precedents to punish a member for statements he or she made before joining Congress and to have the majority party remove a minority member from committees without the minority party’s consent.
Several Republicans — including McCarthy — have sought to draw a comparison with Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), the hard-left lawmaker who courted controversy in 2019 after making alleged anti-Semitic comments. Unlike Greene, however, Omar apologized for her remarks, and Democratic leaders orchestrated a vote on a resolution condemning anti-Semitism and other forms of hatred, which Omar supported, to move past the controversy.
The debate played out at an afternoon meeting of the House Rules Committee, which prepared the committee measure for the floor vote Thursday. Republicans on the panel all denounced Greene’s remarks but called for a more deliberate approach to taking action against her.
“We ought to follow a process that will allow us in a deliberative way to establish the facts and discuss the implications and move from there,” said Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), the panel’s top Republican, who called Greene’s comments “extraordinarily disturbing.”
But McGovern noted that Greene has refused to publicly apologize for her remarks and said he was not concerned about creating a slippery slope.
“If the precedent’s going to be that if somebody advocates putting a bullet in the head of a member . . . if that is going to be the new determination as to what it takes to throw people off of committees, I’m fine with that,” McGovern said.
About an hour later, inside an auditorium underneath the Capitol, Republicans lined up behind microphones to air their views on Cheney — kicking off a meeting that would drag on for hours.
Cheney herself, according to attendees, refused to apologize for her backing of Trump’s impeachment vote and voiced support for settling the issue with a vote Wednesday night.
That presented a conundrum for McCarthy, who has gone from publicly holding Trump responsible for the riot and recommending his censure to visiting Trump at his Florida estate last week to secure his support for Republicans ahead of the 2022 midterms. Meanwhile, he has sent mixed signals on his support for Cheney and kept silent for days as anger rose about Greene’s remarks.
Inside the room, McCarthy made his pitch: With the majority within the GOP’s grasp after unexpected gains in November’s elections, the party could not afford a messy internal leadership squabble.
“We need to unite for us to take the majority and govern,” McCarthy told the gathering, according to a lawmaker in the room.
Republicans said McCarthy’s speech turned what could have been a close vote into a resounding defeat for the hard-right flank, which had argued that Cheney’s anti-Trump stance — and the way she delivered it — made her unfit to lead the party.
Both the effort to oust Cheney and the reluctance to sanction Greene are tied up in the party’s internal debate over whether to create more distance from Trump, who has denigrated Cheney, praised Greene, refused to denounce QAnon, and will stand trial next week in the Senate on the impeachment charge that he incited the deadly Jan. 6 Capitol riot.
“I don’t think this is about Liz Cheney,” said Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler (R-Wash.), a Cheney ally, as she entered the meeting Wednesday. “This is about the direction of our party and whether or not we’re going to be a minority dedicated to just one person, or we’re going to be a united Republican majority.”
Democrats have already signaled they plan to make the rise of extremism on the right a campaign issue going forward, launching a $500,000 ad campaign this week tying several swing-district Republicans to QAnon and the violence at the Capitol over the reluctance to impeach Trump.
“Washington Republicans have made their choice — they chose to cave to the murderous QAnon mob that has taken over their party,” said Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (D-N.Y.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, in a Tuesday statement.
In his statement on Greene on Wednesday, McCarthy said her remarks “do not represent the values or beliefs of the House Republican Conference” and noted that the House voted in October to condemn QAnon.
“I made this clear to Marjorie when we met,” he said. “I also made clear that as a member of Congress we have a responsibility to hold ourselves to a higher standard than how she presented herself as a private citizen. Her past comments now have much greater meaning. Marjorie recognized this in our conversation. I hold her to her word, as well as her actions going forward.”
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