GOP increasingly balks at calling Jan. 6 an insurrection
Allies of GOP leader vow to oust Liz Cheney
Top allies of House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) are vowing to oust Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), one of the harshest critics of former President Trump in either party, from her leadership post by the end of the month.
They argue that the No. 3 Republican has repeatedly contradicted McCarthy and his team, undermining the party's message and its efforts to take back the House majority in next year's midterm elections.
"There is no way that Liz will be conference chair by month's end," one key McCarthy ally told The Hill on Monday. "When there is a vote, it won't be a long conference; it will be fast. Everyone knows the outcome."
The developments suggest it is not just members of the conservative House Freedom Caucus who are pushing to get rid of Cheney; senior lawmakers in the 154-member Republican Study Committee, the largest GOP caucus on Capitol Hill, have been openly critical of Cheney and are now trying to orchestrate her removal.
"This is a broad range of lawmakers who have had it with her," said a second McCarthy ally. "She's a liability, and McCarthy's as fed up as the rest of us that she is focused on the past rather than winning back the House."
Cheney, the GOP conference chairwoman who's tasked with overseeing party messaging, has defended her against-the-grain approach, saying she's simply trying to tug the party away from its veneration of a single figure and back to its pre-Trump policy ideals. Part of that responsibility, she says, is calling out Trump and his loyal foot soldiers for claiming that the 2020 election was stolen from him.
"The 2020 presidential election was not stolen," Cheney tweeted on Monday. "Anyone who claims it was is spreading THE BIG LIE, turning their back on the rule of law, and poisoning our democratic system."
Cheney's tweet was in response to a new statement from Trump, who has clung to the narrative that the election was rigged against him, despite the mountains of evidence to the contrary. On Monday, he issued a one-sentence statement amplifying the false notion that his defeat was the result of rampant voter fraud.
"The Fraudulent Presidential Election of 2020 will be, from this day forth, known as THE BIG LIE!" Trump said.
Trump fired back at Cheney on Monday with a statement saying: "Heartwarming to read new polls on big-shot warmonger Liz Cheney of the great State of Wyoming. She is so low that her only chance would be if vast numbers of people run against her which, hopefully, won't happen. They never liked her much, but I say she'll never run in a Wyoming election again!"
The internal acrimony reflects the extraordinary sway that Trump holds over the party even after his election defeat. Although cloistered at his Florida resort and banned from Twitter, the former president remains enormously popular among the GOP's conservative base, and his promise to stay active in future elections - and go after anyone deemed insufficiently loyal - has sent an explicit message to Republican leaders: Defy him at your own risk.
Against that threat, most House Republicans have rushed to Trump's defense and downplayed his role in the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol. That's made Cheney an outlier, one whose public disgust with the former president marks a sharp contrast from the position adopted by McCarthy, the could-be Speaker who had championed Trump's account of a stolen election and is now actively seeking his help heading into 2022.
Asked last week if Cheney remains a "good fit" to be in leadership, McCarthy abandoned his earlier support for her.
"That's a question for the conference," he said, referring to House Republicans.
The debate over Cheney's future is part of a broader GOP reckoning over the direction of the party in the wake of Trump's presidency. It's a conversation that's splintered traditionalist Republicans from a new brand of populists and sitting members from former colleagues, who are more free to assess Trump frankly without fear of political backlash.
"Liz is right," former Rep. Francis Rooney (R-Fla.) told CNN last week. "The party that I've been a member most of my life doesn't exist right now amidst all this populism and nativism and opposition to traditional Republican principles that we need to get back to. And we can't get back to them if we just continue to placate Trump."
Cheney's rhetorical approach is similar to that of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who accused Trump of inciting the Jan. 6 rampage at the Capitol - though McConnell did not support Trump's impeachment, like Cheney did - and appears eager to move the party beyond the mercurial reign of the 45th president. It's a position that's elicited plenty of attacks from Trump, who's calling for McConnell's removal as Senate GOP leader.
Yet the dynamics in the House, where more than half the GOP conference voted to overturn the presidential results, are much different than those of the Senate, where there's been no call from Republican senators to oust McConnell. And some GOP senators have rushed to the defense of Cheney, the daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney.
"Liz Cheney is a woman of strength and conscience, and she did what she thought was right, and I salute her for that," Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) said Sunday on CNN's "State of the Union."
It's unclear when another vote to remove Cheney from leadership might emerge.
Cheney, the highest-ranking GOP woman in Congress, easily staved off an internal challenge to her leadership position in February during a marathon, four-hour meeting of Republicans in the Capitol Visitors Center, where lawmakers lined up behind closed doors to denounce her "defiance" and disloyalty.
That contest came after she'd joined just nine other GOP lawmakers in voting to impeach Trump for inciting the Jan. 6 insurrection. With McCarthy's vocal backing, she prevailed under secret ballot by a tally of 145-61 - a landslide victory suggesting that the bulk of the conference agreed with her judgments of Trump, but were just not willing to do it publicly.
But in recent days, Cheney has only amplified the harsh critiques of the president, clashing with other GOP leaders who are eager to unite the fractured party by winning Trump's good graces heading into the 2022 elections, when Democrats will be defending razor-thin majorities in each chamber.
Last week, during the Republicans' annual strategy conference, held this year in Orlando, Fla., Cheney made waves by saying the GOP's congressional leaders - not Trump - are commanding the party. She also broke with McCarthy in calling for an independent investigation into the Jan. 6 attack focused squarely on that event. Two days later, she raised more eyebrows when she fist-bumped President Biden on the House floor as he made his way down the aisle for his first address to a joint session of Congress.
Cheney's willingness to buck other GOP leaders has given plenty of talking points to Democrats fighting to hold the House in 2022 - and infuriated a growing number of her GOP colleagues, including many who had voted in February to keep her as the party's conference chair but are now singing a very different tune.
Some are predicting Cheney won't survive the month, largely because they don't believe McCarthy will stand by and defend her as he did ahead of the first attempt to oust her. Republicans who attended both the Orlando gathering last week and a separate House GOP campaign retreat over the weekend said there was a "ton of chatter" about Cheney's future.
"She is a big distraction," the first McCarthy ally said. "I don't see McCarthy saving her this time."
Another GOP lawmaker agreed. Cheney has "made things worse and worse over the last few weeks with unforced comments and actions. McCarthy held people back from ousting her last time; I don't think he'll do it this time."
A second vote to determine Cheney's future won't happen immediately. The House is on recess and doesn't come back into session until May 12, but GOP lawmakers say they anticipate they will hold a closed-door, secret-ballot vote to boot Cheney from leadership once they return to Washington.
A McCarthy spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.
As of now, it's unclear who would be the favorite to step into the GOP conference chair role if Cheney is voted out by her foes. Rep. Jim Banks (R-Ind.), the new Republican Study Committee chairman, has been raising his profile in recent months, taking public jabs at Cheney and urging Republicans to stick with a pro-Trump agenda that he says has broad appeal to working-class Americans and will lead to election victories in 2022 and 2024.
Rep. Mike Johnson (R-La.), the immediate past Study Committee chair who currently serves under Cheney as GOP conference vice chair, would be well positioned, too. However, if Banks or Johnson joined McCarthy and Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) on the team, the top three leadership jobs would be filled by white men at a time McCarthy has been emphasizing the need to recruit diverse candidates.
Other Republicans are floating Reps. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.) or Jackie Walorski (R-Ind.) for the conference chair job. Both sided with Trump and voted to overturn the election results on Jan. 6.
Al Weaver contributed.