Politics / November 15, 2023

Republicans Get Ready to Rumble

After House Democrats narrowly averted a shutdown, GOP congresspeople are in brawling mode.

Chris Lehmann
Senate Armed Services Committee Holds Nomination Hearing For Timothy D. Haugh To Lead NSA And Cyber Command

Senate Armed Services Committee members Senators Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.), Joe Manchin (R-W.Va.), and Markwayne Mullin (R-Okla.) talk before a hearing of the National Security Agency and US Cyber Command in the Dirksen Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.

(Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images)

First time farce, second time… farce. That appears to be the principal takeaway from the great GOP House leadership rebellion of 2023.

Back in early October, patient followers of MAGAfied Kremlinology in the Republican House conference will recall, Speaker Kevin McCarthy was sent packing in a historic motion-to-vacate vote for the grave offense of brokering a deal with House Democrats on a clean continuing resolution to keep the government functioning and funded. Now, after weeks of fruitless jockeying within the conference to replace McCarthy, his eventual successor, Louisiana Representative Mike Johnson, has reached a near-identical compact with House Democrats on a “laddered” continuing resolution that institutes two separate deadlines—one in mid-January, one in early February—for government operations to start running out of money. The stopgap bill, like the predecessor McCarthy deal, was basically a Democratic rescue action; 209 Democratic members voted to approve it, with just two voting no; the corresponding totals in the GOP majority were 127 and 93. Indeed, Johnson’s bill received three more Republican no votes than McCarthy’s did.

The House action, which Johnson obtained via a rule suspension to move directly to a floor vote, again drew the ire of the hard-right House Freedom Caucus, which played a central role in both McCarthy’s marathon 14-ballot election to the speakership and his defenestration from the same post nine months later. But this latest spasm of outrage was tempered with the recognition that Johnson, a dogmatic evangelical culture warrior and proven election denier, is a comrade in arms—an affinity that caucus members never felt with the chameleonic and opportunistic McCarthy. Unlike the past several GOP speakers, Johnson has included Freedom Caucus members in his weekly strategy meetings, and at least some of them are falling in line behind him. Andrew Ogles, a caucus member from Tennessee, told The Washington Post that the stopgap resolution is palatable this time out because it will serve as the overture to the spending fights of 2024. “We have to kind of gear up and gird up for January,” he said. “Because that’s where the real fight begins.”

Johnson himself struck the same note of anticipatory belligerence at a press conference announcing the staggered continuing resolution bills, as reporters pressed him to explain why and how his spending deal was different from McCarthy’s. “We’re not surrendering, we’re fighting,” the speaker insisted. “But you have to be wise about choosing your fights.”

That claim will be decided during the post-holiday phase of intra-conference infighting—but in an inopportune development for Johnson’s messaging, Congress spent much of the day leading up to the vote in fracases that showcased neither wisdom nor judgment. To start things off, Representative Tim Burchett, a Tennessee colleague of Ogles who voted for McCarthy’s ouster last month, was elbowed in the kidneys by the former speaker in a Capitol corridor encounter. Burchett gave chase to McCarthy and his security detail, demanding to know what was up; when the former speaker denied delivering the body blow, Burchett hissed to NPR reporter Claudia Grisales, “He’s just a jerk.” Burchett dilated further on that theme in a later interview with CNN reporter Manu Raju: “He’s a bully with $17 million and a security detail. He’s the type of guy that, when you’re a kid, would throw a rock over the fence and then run home and hide behind his mama’s skirt.”

The same rarefied aura of reasoned disputation attached to House business at virtually every corner on Tuesday. Georgia Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene elected to reply to her California colleague Darrell Issa, who had not supported her half-baked motion to impeach Department of Homeland Security head Alejandro Mayorkas, with a Twitter meme branding him “a pussy”—something less than a closely calibrated refutation of Issa’s claim that Greene lacked “the maturity and experience” to make such a motion stick.

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Meanwhile, the nominal overseer of Issa and Greene on the House Oversight Committee, James Comer of Kentucky, was in prime middle-school form himself. Democratic committee member Jared Moskowitz had indelicately pointed out that the great presidential trespass Comer was in the process of investigating—Joe Biden’s extension of a $200,000 loan to his brother—was a bit of business that Comer himself had conducted with one of his own hard-pressed siblings. “This is bullshit!” Comer proclaimed, and for good measure hit back at Moskowitz with the taunt, “You look like a smurf here.”

If weary citizens of the republic thought the Senate, which likes to advertise itself as the world’s greatest deliberative body, might showcase a more measured approach to civic inquiry, I regret to report that Lord Gargamel had other things in mind. GOP Senator Markwayne Mullin of Oklahoma, who sits on the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, thought it appropriate to confront Teamsters President Sean O’Brien, who was testifying before the panel, with derisive social-media comments the union president lobbed at the lawmaker back in June, including the characterizations “clown” and “fraud.” Mullin then invited O’Brien to a fist fight: “You want to run your mouth? We can be two consenting adults, we can finish it here.” The Teamsters official replied, “Fine, that’s perfect,” which got Mullin to issue this Daniel Webster–esque rejoinder: “Stand your butt up, then.” He was in the process of standing his own butt up when Committee chair Bernie Sanders brought the whole biker-bar set piece to a close by reminding Mullin, “You’re a United States senator.”

Indeed, and alas. These are the congressional legatees of the Party of Lincoln, who early next year will take up Mike Johnson’s mandate to meet the House’s primary obligation as the holder of the nation’s purse strings, and set about fighting in a more productive and targeted fashion. No wonder the new House speaker is such an ardent man of prayer.

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Chris Lehmann

Chris Lehmann is the D.C. Bureau chief for The Nation and a contributing editor at The Baffler. He was formerly editor of The Baffler and The New Republic, and is the author, most recently, of The Money Cult: Capitalism, Christianity, and the Unmaking of the American Dream (Melville House, 2016).

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