House at war over Jan. 6 inquiry, mask mandate
House Republicans and Democrats are at each other’s throats over two explosive issues — the Capitol insurrection and a new mask mandate — that have collided this week in a perfect storm of partisan hostility.
The tensions have simmered with fluctuating ferocity since the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, but they’re spilling over now — just days before the long August recess — with the arrival of the special investigation into the Capitol siege, which launched Tuesday, and the spike in coronavirus cases, which prompted new health restrictions for the lower chamber.
The common thread running through both debates is former President Trump, who encouraged his supporters to march on the Capitol on Jan. 6, leading to the deadly rampage that day, and warned throughout the pandemic against stringent public health guidelines that he said infringed on individual rights. Though Trump is no longer in the White House, many lawmakers on Capitol Hill say he’s fueling the current animosity.
“What continues to drive a wedge between Republicans and Democrats is the fact that the former president is still very active in their politics,” Rep. Norma Torres (D-Calif.) told The Hill.
“They’re still very afraid of him. Some of them want to be him, some of them just want to follow him and some of them just want to regurgitate what he says because they’re afraid that if they don’t, they won’t get reelected,” she said.
The most high-profile clashes are happening at the leadership level.
Although the mask mandate was reinstated by the Capitol physician, Republicans found room to blame Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) for what they considered an encroachment on their personal liberties.
In protest, a number of rank-and-file conservatives on Wednesday refused to wear masks on the chamber floor. And House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) blasted the new requirement, saying it’s an unnecessary step cooked up by Pelosi to exert control over the public.
“Make no mistake — The threat of bringing masks back is not a decision based on science, but a decision conjured up by liberal government officials who want to continue to live in a perpetual pandemic state,” McCarthy tweeted Tuesday night.
Democrats wasted no time hitting back, arguing that personal liberties should not include one’s right to spread a deadly contagious disease — particularly for members of Congress who bear a responsibility, the Democrats say, to follow public health guidelines and lead by example.
Pelosi noted that she’s merely following the advice of the Capitol physician, who in turn was heeding new updated recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But in a moment of high pique, she let slip what she thinks of McCarthy and his opposition to the public health advice.
“He’s such a moron,” she said Wednesday morning.
McCarthy, caught later by reporters, fired back.
“This is no different than her telling people they couldn’t go out, but she’s getting her hair done,” McCarthy said. “This is about control.”
If the language was surprising, the sentiments were not. The two hail from the same state, but their common ground ends shortly after that. And the pair has been jousting for months over the Jan. 6 investigation, which McCarthy boycotted after Pelosi refused to seat two conservatives who had disparaged the process.
Last week, at the height of the battle over the select committee, Pelosi refused to entertain any questions about the Republican leader.
“I’m not talking about him,” she said. “Let’s not waste each other’s time, OK?”
The animosity is hardly limited to the leadership ranks.
On Tuesday evening, Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), a member of the Jan. 6 committee, teed off on Rep. Andrew Clyde, a first-term Georgia Republican who had likened the Capitol assault by Trump supporters to a “normal tourist visit.”
Raskin, after hearing hours of testimony from injured police officers defending the Capitol that day, challenged Clyde’s characterization in a feisty exchange that encapsulated all the partisan rancor of recent months in one 10-minute clash.
There was no resolution.
“I stand by that exact statement as I said it,” Clyde said.
The blowup over masks, sparked just hours later with the physician’s mandate, seemed to build off of the Jan. 6 tensions.
On Wednesday, a handful of Trump’s most fervent loyalists on the Hill revolted against the mask mandate, refusing to wear them on the House floor despite threats of steep fines. They included GOP Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene (Ga.), Matt Gaetz (Fla.), Chip Roy (Texas), Andy Biggs (Ariz.) and Clyde.
Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.) reportedly slid a mask back across a table after a floor staffer offered her one. And in protest, Roy and Rep. Jody Hice (R-Ga.) forced two separate votes Wednesday to adjourn the House for the day.
“We can’t come to the floor, I can’t execute my constitutional duty, unless I wear a mask. Which is it? Vaccines or masks? Either the vaccines work or they don’t work. Do the masks work or they don’t work? I’d like to know which it is,” Roy said during a floor speech.
“This institution is a sham, and we should adjourn and shut this place down.”
The antagonism spilled off the House floor as well. Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.) was preparing to board an elevator Wednesday when he spotted a maskless Rep. Byron Donalds (R-Fla.), whom he had recently seen on cable TV explaining why he won’t take the vaccine.
“It’s ridiculous that you’re unvaccinated, unmasked and you’re getting into an elevator with other people,” Huffman told Donalds, before opting to board another elevator.
When the pair crossed paths again moments later near the House floor, Huffman lashed out, calling Donalds “incredibly selfish.”
“Mind your own business,” Donalds shot back.
A maskless Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.) called the reinstatement of the mask mandate inconsistent and all for show, pointing out that House staffers were not enforcing mask wearing in the hallways of the Capitol, only in the chamber where TV cameras captured action on the floor. And across the Capitol in the Senate, the physician encouraged but did not require masks to be worn.
“This is all a ruse. This is all political theater,” said Massie, who is leading a lawsuit against Pelosi challenging $500 fines for lawmakers who refuse to mask up.
Democrats, however, said they were flabbergasted by Republicans who refuse to wear masks or urge their constituents to get vaccinated, especially as the U.S. sees a sharp spike in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations largely caused by the delta variant.
“You can’t wear a simple mask to keep somebody else safe? Forget about you,” said an exasperated Rep. Adriano Espaillat (D-N.Y.). “You want to get sick and die? That’s your choice. But what about other people?”
Cristina Marcos contributed.