One political rule of life is never ask a question unless you really want to know the answer.
Example: It cannot possibly get worse in Washington, can it?
By early Thursday afternoon, President Trump and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) had traded insults several times. Pelosi called for a delay of Trump’s planned Jan. 29 State of the Union address as long as portions of the government were shut down. The president then revoked military support for her weekend trip to visit troops in Afghanistan.
A couple of days earlier, the House rebuked Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) for a history of racially and ethnically charged remarks, the latest in his questioning of how white supremacy had become offensive.
“We have just been through a very difficult week,” House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) lamented.
Could it get worse?
Yes, it can. It almost did. And it still might.
Hoyer’s comments came Thursday as he tried to restore calm to a rambunctious House after a fairly innocuous set of votes turned the chamber into a tinderbox of raw emotions. Republicans accused Democrats of trying to steal a vote, Democrats accused Republicans of not paying attention to the floor proceedings and, finally, a GOP lawmaker shouted “go back to Puerto Rico!”
Tensions flared, and lawmakers walked toward one another in the well of the House.
The chance of physical confrontation seemed to grow by the second, a cross between a Spike Lee movie where one remark turns an entire neighborhood into flames and a moment inside the regular brawls that occur in Taiwan’s parliament.
Cooler heads prevailed, mostly because of Hoyer and House Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) and their agreement to a do-over vote Wednesday. Scalise joked that maybe he could whip enough votes for the minority to actually win.
“I don’t want to get too carried away,” Scalise told Hoyer, “but I appreciate that we were able to resolve this, and I know tensions got a little heated.”
The tension is only going to grow in coming days. The partial shutdown of federal agencies is now in its fifth week, an unprecedented duration. No serious negotiations have taken place since Trump walked out of a meeting of bipartisan congressional leaders after Pelosi said she had no intention of funding a border wall.
Starting Friday, about 800,000 federal workers will begin missing their second round of paychecks during the standoff, just as monthly bills for mortgages, rents, utilities and credit cards come due.
Yet the Senate has adjourned with no votes planned until the end of the month, unless a deal is somehow struck. However, with no votes, there will be very few senators here in Washington, diminishing the chance for any dealmaking.
The House will be in session, but that might not help matters much. Lawmakers had planned to use the week as time to work back in their districts, a particularly key period for the almost 100 freshmen serving their first weeks in office.
Some newcomers had scheduled town halls to connect with their constituents and explain what has been happening on Capitol Hill — those will almost certainly be canceled. Some veterans planned to use the break to travel abroad on congressional delegations to meet with foreign dignitaries.
Trump’s actions blocking Pelosi’s travels and the House votes have presumably nixed any other congressional travel. A normal week in the Capitol can be contentious enough.
A week when no one planned to be in Washington is a recipe for disaster, to the point where maybe a physical confrontation is not too far off.
These near-clashes have happened before, often when the House majority flips and those newly in the minority feel disrespected. In 1995, a few months after Republicans seized the majority for the first time in 40 years, Democrat Sam Gibbons (Fla.), 75 at the time, grabbed the tie of a GOP subcommittee chairman, then-Rep. Bill Thomas (R-Calif.), after a Ways and Means Committee meeting on Medicare policy.
Gibbons told The Washington Post in 2003 he actually wanted to choke Thomas.
In 2007, seven months into their new minority status, Republicans accused Democrats of stealing a procedural vote by banging the gavel shut before all votes were cast. Pelosi, in her first year as speaker, created a special committee to investigate, the ranking Republican being a backbencher — Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.).
The future vice president called the mostly inconsequential procedural vote “a dark moment in the history of the United States.”
Last week’s clash recalled that 2007 dispute, but this came during a much darker period of the nation’s political state — a combustible mix of racial, gender and ethnic politics amid a shutdown of federal agencies.
House Democrats had already approved seven bills that would have reopened the entire government. Thursday’s proposal served as the most basic of all: a one-page bill opening those impacted agencies at last year’s budget levels until Feb. 28.
Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.), a former judge who was presiding, asked if anyone wanted a recorded vote on the measure. No Republican spoke up, so he moved to the next vote.
Some Republicans wrongly accused Butterfield of not holding a full vote, shouting at him as he left the dais. “Go back to Puerto Rico!” Rep. Jason T. Smith (R-Mo.) yelled from the GOP side of the aisle. It was in the direction of Rep. Tony Cárdenas (D-Calif.), who is of Mexican descent.
Cárdenas took the remark as an ethnic slur and charged toward Republicans, one of Pelosi’s senior staffers at his side. He shouted at Republicans, asking who said it. No one took ownership.
Later, Smith called Cárdenas to apologize and asked to meet in person, saying he meant to mock the several dozen Democrats who went to Puerto Rico the previous weekend, not to single out anyone for their ethnicity.
“I accepted his apology,” Cárdenas told the Hill.
Democrats agreed to hold a full vote on the same bill Wednesday, and Scalise acknowledged Butterfield had done nothing wrong. He thanked him for his “fairness.”
Hoyer issued a final warning about the tone of the chamber, decrying “undertones of prejudice or racism or any kind of ‘-ism.’”
“We need to be civil to one another, we need to be polite to one another even,” he said.
It can’t get any worse. Right?