Gulf grows between GOP’s McConnell, McCarthy
The gulf between the two top Republicans on Capitol Hill grew even wider this week after Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) took the unusual step of plunging into a pair of controversies that House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) is struggling to contain in the lower chamber.
In the span of an hour, McConnell issued two separate statements, one condemning the “loony” conspiracy theories of first-term Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), a follower of the pro-Trump QAnon movement; the other praising Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) as she faces backlash from former President Trump loyalists after her vote to impeach the 45th president.
Those dynamics have created a rare and growing rift between the top GOP leaders across chambers at the very moment when Republicans are trying to unite against the ambitious legislative agenda of the new Democratic president, Joe Biden.
Both the Greene and Cheney issues have created migraines for McCarthy, a close Trump ally caught between the House Republicans still defending the former president following the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol and those warning that only a clean break from the mercurial Trump will save the Republican Party from devouring itself.
McConnell’s extraordinary decision to insert himself into those debates — and to do it so aggressively — not only places him squarely in the latter camp, but also applies enormous pressure on McCarthy to join him there. And McConnell is hardly alone; other top Senate Republican voices are also seeking to shift the party’s focus away from its more fringe elements, represented by Greene, and back to the institutionalist mindset embodied by Cheney.
“I think we should make it very clear that [Greene] does not represent us in any way. Our big tent is not large enough to both accommodate conservatives and kooks,” Sen. Mitt Romney (Utah), the GOP’s 2012 standard-bearer, told reporters Tuesday.
“House Republicans are gonna have to decide who they want to be. Do they want to be the party of limited government, fiscal responsibility and free markets, and peace through strength and pro-life, or do they want to be a party of conspiracy theories and QAnon?” added Senate GOP Whip John Thune (S.D.). “It’s a big distraction, I think, for them right now, and not in a good way.”
The McConnell-McCarthy divide also reflects the vastly different political interests and power structures underlying the House, where more than half of Republicans had voted to overturn the election results based on Trump’s false claims of widespread fraud, and the Senate, where the number was in the single digits.
McCarthy himself embraced Trump’s false allegations that the election was stolen, while McConnell took the opposite tack, warning just minutes before the Jan. 6 insurrection that America would enter a “death spiral” if elections could be overturned by mere allegations from the losing party.
It’s unlikely that McConnell will vote to convict Trump, who is facing his second impeachment trial next week; most Senate Republicans see the prosecution of a former president as unconstitutional and are standing by Trump, and McConnell can read the tea leaves.
But if McConnell is ready to turn the page on Trump, McCarthy doesn’t have the same luxury. Indeed, the House leader has walked back criticisms that Trump bears responsibility for the Capitol attack, and last week visited the former president in Florida, where he sought Trump’s help as Republicans vie to recapture the House in 2022.
McConnell, who has a reputation as a shrewd political tactician, also believes he’s on the cusp of winning back the Senate majority next year, given the current 50-50 split. But he’s made a different political calculation than McCarthy: that Trump, Greene and their QAnon acolytes are too toxic and could severely jeopardize the GOP’s comeback in 2022.
“Politically, the era of Trump has not been good for Republicans — we lost the House, we lost the White House and we lost the Senate,” said one senior congressional GOP source. “Democrats, fairly or unfairly, are going to label Republicans as the QAnon party and that’s something our members in tough seats will have to contend with. That would be devastating.”
McConnell on Tuesday denied any friction between himself and McCarthy, saying he had a “good working relationship” with his House GOP counterpart. But McConnell’s scathing, unsolicited remarks about Greene the night before have complicated the situation for McCarthy, who was already facing enormous pressure from Democrats and some prominent Republicans to strip her of her two committee assignments. McCarthy is set to sit down with Greene this week.
“Loony lies and conspiracy theories are cancer for the Republican Party and our country,” McConnell said in a statement Monday that was first shared with The Hill. “Somebody who’s suggested that perhaps no airplane hit the Pentagon on 9/11, that horrifying school shootings were pre-staged, and that the Clintons crashed JFK Jr.’s airplane is not living in reality.”
In addition to those conspiracy theories, Greene also has supported Facebook posts calling for the executions of Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and former President Obama; and subscribed to another false, bizarre theory that the 2018 wildfires in McCarthy’s home state of California were sparked by a laser from space controlled by a powerful Jewish family with designs on clearing the land.
Speaking to reporters Tuesday afternoon, McConnell dialed it back and seemed reluctant to tee off on Greene in front of the TV cameras.
“I did yesterday express myself on that particular new member of the House,” McConnell said, declining once again to refer to the first-term firebrand by name. “And I think I adequately spoke out about how I feel about any effort to define the Republican Party in such a way. I think that pretty well covers my view on that.”
Still, the divergent approaches represent a snapshot of the torturous internal debate racking Republicans as they clash over the direction of the party in a world where Trump has lost his office and his Twitter account, but remains enormously popular with the GOP base. That popularity is especially entrenched in the deep-red House districts that are home to his most loyal adherents on Capitol Hill, including Reps. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.) and Jim Banks (R-Ind.), who hold prominent positions of power within the House GOP ranks.
Even Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) — an institutionalist, former member of leadership and powerful appropriator who represents a deep-red Trump district — voted to object to the Electoral College certification on Jan. 6. He said it’s what his constituents wanted.
“I have been closely studying this issue and listening intently to what my constituents have to say,” Cole said at the time. “The voters I represent are not concerned about the fairness of elections in Oklahoma. However, they are concerned about fairness and transparency in other states.”
McCarthy faces an early test Wednesday, when House Republicans will huddle behind closed doors and Cheney’s future is expected to be a topic du jour. McCarthy has wavered on the issue, saying he supports Cheney while voicing “concerns” with her impeachment vote in the same breath.
As McCarthy weighs his strategy for handling the outcry over Cheney, the highest-ranking Republican woman in Congress, McConnell is making clear where he stands — and making life tougher for McCarthy in the process.
“Liz Cheney is a leader with deep convictions and the courage to act on them,” McConnell said in a statement given to CNN. “She is an important leader in our party and in our nation. I am grateful for her service and look forward to continuing to work with her on the crucial issues facing our nation.”
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