Leading the charge was Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who made an unusual detour into the other chamber’s affairs by denouncing the extremist rhetoric of Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene while offering a gesture of support for Rep. Liz Cheney, the No. 3 House GOP leader, who voted last month to impeach Trump.
He was joined Tuesday by several other Republican lawmakers, as well as pillars of the conservative establishment, who together warned that sidelining Trump critics from the party while tolerating purveyors of social-media-driven paranoia would spell long-term disaster — a “cancer for the Republican Party and our country,” as McConnell put it.
Sen. Todd C. Young (R-Ind.), a McConnell confidant who recently ended a stint as chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, called Greene “nutty” and “an embarrassment to our party.”
“The people of her congressional district, it’s their prerogative if they want to abase themselves by voting to elect someone who indulges in anti-Semitic conspiracy theories and all manner of other nonsense. But I’ve got no tolerance for people like that,” he told reporters. “In terms of the divisions within our party, she’s not even part of the conversation, as far as I’m concerned.”
Greene, meanwhile, boasted of raising more than $85,000 in the 24 hours following McConnell’s statement late Monday and fired back at him on Twitter: “The real cancer for the Republican Party is weak Republicans who only know how to lose gracefully.”
The debate over the future of the GOP comes a day before House Republicans are scheduled to meet privately to debate whether Cheney (R-Wyo.) — the daughter of a former vice president who has spent a lifetime in Republican politics — can continue in her role as GOP conference chairwoman.
They are also facing pressure to swiftly remove Greene (R-Ga.) from two House committees after the unearthing of social media posts in which she endorsed the assassination of prominent Democrats, including Speaker Nancy Pelosi; promulgated conspiracy theories involving the same; and claimed mass shootings in Las Vegas and Florida were “false flag” operations staged by supporters of gun control.
At the center of the pressure is McCarthy (R-Calif.), who has maintained his position as the top House Republican leader by hewing closely to Trump and an evolving GOP electorate that eagerly embraced the former president’s hard-edge populism while casting aside much of the party’s conservative orthodoxy.
After unexpected GOP gains in November’s elections, McCarthy is well-positioned to succeed Pelosi as speaker in the upcoming midterm elections, but he is now facing an intraparty crisis following the Capitol riot — one that some Republicans say has been exacerbated by McCarthy’s own vacillations in the four weeks since.
After publicly holding Trump at least partially responsible for the events of Jan. 6 and endorsing a first-ever presidential censure, McCarthy later tempered his criticism — culminating in a meeting with Trump last week at his Florida estate. The two agreed to work in tandem to win the House back for Republicans in 2022 — an outcome that could vault McCarthy into the speakership and demonstrate the durability of Trump’s appeal to GOP voters.
But the fracture inside the party of Cheney and Greene could throw that plan into doubt — and it is in McCarthy’s hands to navigate a path through the turmoil. On one side are Trump loyalists who make up the bulk of the House GOP — two-thirds of whom voted to reject state electoral votes and endorse Trump’s baseless voter fraud claims — while a significant minority are eager to move the party away from Trump and toward a more policy-driven foundation.
In the latter camp are many Republicans who see the moment as akin to the mid-1960s reckoning when journalist William F. Buckley Jr. and key GOP politicians banded together to marginalize the anti-Communist extremism and conspiracy-mongering of the John Birch Society. The echoes of that moment could be heard in the statement from McConnell, who dismissed Greene’s statements as “loony lies” that have “nothing to do with the challenges facing American families or the robust debates on substance that can strengthen our party.”
Sen. John Thune (S.D.), the No. 2 GOP leader, said House Republicans faced a simple choice: “Do they want to be the party of limited government . . . or do they want to be the party of conspiracy theories and QAnon?” he asked, referring to the extremist ideology that Greene embraced during her campaign and has been linked to violent incidents culminating in the Capitol riot.
Said Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), “Our big tent is not large enough to both accommodate conservatives and kooks.”
Robert Doar, president of the American Enterprise Institute, which has historically enjoyed close ties with Republican policymakers, said it was incumbent on the GOP to accept Trump critics like Cheney into the fold and root out extremists or watch the party’s electoral coalition continue to unravel.
“The risk is that they’ll drive reasonable people who would likely be supportive of right-of-center policies away because they don’t want to be a part of a party that has those elements in it,” he said. “What will happen is that the substance that you really care about — a certain kind of tax policy, a certain kind of budgetary policy, an approach on issues concerning cancel culture and identity politics — will lose.”
But the other camp, largely consisting of newer Republicans who came to power with Trump, see establishment figures as attempting to pull the party back to its Reagan-Bush days.
“If I was a Republican at risk of losing a primary, I do not know that Mitch McConnell’s endorsement would be the first I would seek,” Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), first elected alongside Trump in 2016, told reporters Monday evening. He flew to Wyoming last week to campaign against Cheney.
“I listed Mitch McConnell right along the establishment figures like Joe Biden and Liz Cheney and Nancy Pelosi and Mitt Romney who want to return our government to its default setting of screwing the American people to their benefit,” Gaetz said of his trip to Wyoming.
Next week, the Senate is set to try Trump on the impeachment charge that he incited the Jan. 6 riot by inviting his supporters to rally in D.C. as Congress tallied the electoral votes after spreading the false claim that he did not lose the November election.
But because most Republican senators have signaled that they plan to sidestep the question of Trump’s culpability and acquit him on constitutional grounds, the fates of Cheney and Greene have become the most important proxy battles for the party’s future.
Cheney’s fate as a GOP leader will be debated in Wednesday evening’s private meeting of Republican lawmakers. While some Trump loyalists have made clear they intend to turn the meeting into a session to air long-simmering grievances, it will be largely up to McCarthy how the challenge will be resolved. Many Republicans say he is likely to bottle up any motion to dismiss Cheney in a committee of party leaders rather than put her service up for a vote.
But avoiding accountability for Greene could be much more difficult. House Democrats have announced plans to move forward with a resolution removing Greene from her two committees unless Republicans act first.
In recent history, a House majority has never removed a minority member from a committee without the minority’s consent. But Democrats say they are on firm political ground given the nature of Greene’s comments — and many Republicans acknowledge that the rarity of the move won’t shield them from electoral repercussions.
“That puts every single member of our conference in a very difficult position — having to take an up-or-down vote” on Greene, said one House Republican official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak about internal discussions. “The worst-case scenario is to take this to the floor.”
A McCarthy aide did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday. He was in Houston for an event with fellow House Republicans taking aim at President Biden’s executive actions that targeted the fossil fuel industry; he did not address Cheney or Greene during a news conference there. Later Tuesday, McCarthy returned to Washington and met with Greene in his Capitol office. He then convened a previously unscheduled meeting of the House GOP steering committee, which makes recommendations on committee assignments. That meeting broke up Tuesday night without a resolution, to be continued Wednesday, multiple Republicans said.
Greene on Tuesday circulated a letter of support from Republican leaders in her northwest Georgia congressional district.
“She has broken no laws and done nothing illegal,” they wrote. “It is the 14th district who gets to decide who represents them. We don’t like the fact that the establishment and mainstream media are trying to take that away and silence our voice in Congress.”
Greene’s allies inside the House GOP are also speaking up. Rep. Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.) said in a lengthy statement Tuesday that the “tyrannical” Democratic threats to strip Greene of her committees would be reciprocated when Republicans retake the majority.
“All self-righteous Republicans beware: if this can happen to Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene, it can happen to any one of us,” he said, noting that her comments were “shared as a private citizen before coming to the U.S. House.”
Democrats have already signaled they see Greene’s presence inside the Republican ranks as a political bonanza heading into the midterms, when the outlook seems otherwise dismal for their five-seat majority, given expected GOP gains due to redistricting and the typical head winds faced by a president’s party.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee on Tuesday launched a roughly $500,000 flash ad campaign targeting vulnerable Republicans in swing suburban districts, plus McCarthy himself. The ads, running online and on TV, assert that QAnon “took over the Republican Party, sent followers to Congress, and with Donald Trump, incited a mob that attacked the Capitol and murdered a cop.” The targeted lawmakers who voted against impeaching Trump, the ads say, “stood with Q, not you.”
Pelosi, meanwhile, has taken direct aim at McCarthy over Greene’s extreme statements. Her House office on Saturday issued a roundup of the coverage highlighting the GOP leader’s inaction, and on Tuesday, her political team sent a tweet referring to him as “Qevin McCarthy, Q-CA,” attached to a video clip from President John F. Kennedy’s 1961 inaugural address: “Those who foolishly sought power by riding the back of the tiger ended up inside.”