Jarring GOP divisions come back into spotlight
House Republicans are pushing to retaliate against 13 of their GOP colleagues who voted for a bill to fix roads and bridges. At the same time, they’re defending Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.), a loyalist for former President Trump who tweeted an anime video depicting him killing a Democratic colleague.
That jarring contrast was on display during a bizarre closed-door GOP conference meeting on Tuesday that highlighted the deep divisions that continue to exist between the pro-Trump and anti-Trump factions of the party, 10 months after the deadly Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol.
The divisions do not appear to be narrowing, either, pointing to the challenges the GOP could face in governing the House if they are successful in taking back the majority in next fall’s midterms.
In the private meeting in the Capitol basement, Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) warned his rank-and-file Republicans that they need to stick together and stay unified — not attack each other — as they focus on defeating Democrats, sources in the room said.
That message was primarily aimed at Trump allies who have demanded that the 13 Republicans be stripped of their committee assignments for handing Biden a big bipartisan victory on the $1.2 trillion infrastructure package. Trump has called Republicans who voted for the infrastructure bill “RINOs, sellouts, and known losers.”
McCarthy also told his members that Gosar had taken down the anime video of him slaying progressive Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez (D-N.Y.) and swinging swords at President Biden, and told him in a phone call he did not intend to promote violence.
McCarthy said he accepted the apology and argued that Democrats don’t punish their members for making offensive comments.
McCarthy “was doing what was necessary as a leader to keep the conference together and keep it focused on the future and not on each other or individual votes,” Rep. David Joyce (R-Ohio), who attended the meeting, told The Hill.
But the peace inside the GOP was short-lived. Moments later, Rep. Dan Bishop (R-N.C.), a member of the Trump-aligned conservative House Freedom Caucus, filed a motion to oust New York Rep. John Katko as the top Republican on the Homeland Security Committee. Bishop, not usually known for making headlines, serves under Katko on the Homeland panel.
McCarthy quickly referred the motion to the GOP Steering Committee, an influential panel dominated by McCarthy allies that could either vote to refer the Bishop motion to the full 213-member GOP conference or, more likely, table and ignore it.
Asked after the gathering whether Katko should be removed from his post, McCarthy told The Hill: “We’ve got a busy week.”
Later in the closed-door meeting, McCarthy had to deal with another Freedom Caucus problem. He got into a testy exchange with Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas), who complained to the leader that GOP voters are furious with him because 13 of his GOP colleagues voted for the Biden infrastructure plan. McCarthy fired back, saying he’s personally had to defend some controversial votes that Roy has taken.
“Name one! Name one!” Roy yelled at McCarthy, according to a source who saw the heated exchange.
Tuesday’s messy conference meeting neatly encapsulated the tightrope McCarthy is walking in his quest to lead his party back to the majority and win the Speaker’s gavel: To capture the top job, he needs to stay in the good graces of Trump and win support from at least some members of his Freedom Caucus acolytes, while at the same time not alienating swing-district moderates like Katko who will be key to a GOP majority.
“I believe [Katko’s] a Democrat. I don’t believe that leadership should be voting against the majority of the conference, ” said Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.), a Freedom Caucus member and vocal Trump ally. “The ‘Biden 13’ need to be primaried.”
But other Republicans, even those who voted against the infrastructure bill, defended Katko, saying he represents a district in a blue state that favored Biden over Trump by 9 points. Katko also was one of the 10 Republicans who voted to impeach Trump for his role in the Jan. 6 attack, and negotiated a deal with Democrats to create a 9/11-style commission to probe the insurrection by a pro-Trump mob.
“Katko represents a very difficult district. He does everything he possibly can to win. And I think he does the best he can to represent his district as effectively as he can,” Rep. David Valadao (R-Calif.), an ally of both Katko and McCarthy, told The Hill.
“It’s always a situation where we have to vote what we think is right for our districts,” Valadao added. “And you look at the whole Northeast, it’s just a different population. I don’t know John’s district that well, but I think he does what he thinks is best.”
The GOP divide may be on display again Wednesday when the House votes on whether to censure Gosar, another Freedom Caucus member. Two Republican lawmakers have said they could back censuring Gosar, and it’s possible a few others could join them.
Katko and some of the dozen other Republicans who backed Biden’s infrastructure package, including Reps. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) and Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.), have received death threats and other threats of violence.
But Rep. Don Bacon (R-Neb.), one of the 13, said he doesn’t regret his vote, saying he fulfilled his campaign promises and that roads and bridges are popular in his district. And he praised McCarthy for trying to defuse the GOP infighting in the room.
McCarthy was “trying to take the pressure out of the room a little bit. I think he’s trying to be tactically smart and just let the pressure out,” Bacon said. “I think he would have liked us to vote the other way; that was clear. But his message is right: We should be focused on the [Democrats’ reconciliation] vote this week and on 2022.”
After months of headlines about Democratic dysfunction over their massive $1.75 trillion climate and social spending bill, party leaders were thrilled to talk about Republican intraparty warfare.
“The House Republican Conference is all about chaos, crisis, confusion, corruption and controversy. They are trying to sanction members and strip them of committees, not because of outrageous violent threats but because they supported … a bipartisan infrastructure agreement that will make a positive difference in the lives of everyday Americans,” Democratic Caucus Chairman Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) told reporters.
“This is what the House Republican Conference under Kevin McCarthy’s leadership is all about right now — they’re out of control.”