House Republicans should be riding high: The majority is in their grasp and President Joe Biden’s poll numbers are tanking.
Instead, they’re getting in their own way, again.
Ahead of a vote on Democrats’ biggest agenda item, the GOP conference is embroiled in messy internal spats that have spilled into public view, including the censure Wednesday of a far-right House member, the first such vote in more than a decade. At the same time, some rank-and-file Republicans are still pushing to punish their own colleagues for backing a bipartisan bill reviled by former President Donald Trump.
That turmoil is no longer an anomaly for the GOP. The party’s emboldened conservative agitators have repeatedly stoked controversies that threaten to become all-consuming distractions, leaving House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy to seek out a fire extinguisher. The recurring problem could hurt the party as it works to claw back the majority next year.
“I find it unfortunate,” said Rep. Daniel Meuser (R-Pa.), who recalled thinking earlier on Wednesday: “It’s a shame these self-inflicted injuries occur. But that’s all it is and we’re gonna get past that because there’s far more important things to be concerned with.”
While few Republicans voted to rebuke Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.) on Wednesday, several GOP lawmakers privately say his antics brought Republicans an unneeded diversion in an otherwise upbeat month. It forced them on defense just hours before Democrats are expected to take a high-stakes vote on Biden’s signature bill to expand the social safety net. And Republicans would much rather talk about that bill — since they widely believe it’s their ticket to flipping the handful of seats needed to reclaim the speaker’s gavel.
Instead, GOP drama is dominating headlines. Inflation and Democratic infighting have taken a backseat to Gosar’s violent social media posts — he published an animated video that depicts him killing Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) — and the intraparty backlash against the 13 Republicans who backed this month’s infrastructure vote.
Their predicament was captured Wednesday afternoon, when McCarthy and dozens of Republicans held a press conference to speak out against Democrats’ social spending plan. When the top Republican opened up the event to take questions from journalists, the first question was about Gosar.
“Did you listen to anything we said?” McCarthy responded to the reporter, before dismissing the question and ultimately ending the press conference. The GOP leader later delivered a fiery floor speech condemning the vote: “The speaker is burning down the House on the way out the door.”
But while tensions have certainly escalated, Republicans say the Gosar vote hasn’t split the party, particularly compared to other moments this year. All but two Republicans voted against the censure, arguing that Democrats went too far in stripping him from committees. That move — once unheard of — has now happened twice this Congress.
If anything, Republicans say Democrats’ efforts to pointedly bash Gosar, as he sat three rows from the back of the chamber, has further poisoned relations across the aisle.
McCarthy privately told a group of Republican Study Committee members on Wednesday Gosar’s office was wrong to post the video, but that he opposes the majority-led efforts to censure the Arizona Republican. The GOP leader said if they recapture the majority, he doesn’t think Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.) should be serving on the House Intelligence Committee, according to sources in the room. Republicans have also named Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) and House Financial Services Chair Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) as lawmakers who should be worried if Republicans retake the House.
Still, some moderate Republicans grumbled that McCarthy and his team could have done more to address the situation. Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) pointed out “this was not the first thing” with Gosar, recalling previous comments in support of Nazis, white supremacists and baseless conspiracy theories.
Upton recalled harsher punishments doled out by former Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) to members with a far lesser offense: “You don’t wear your tie right, John Boehner was going to go after you.”
Still, Upton — who received death threats last week from voters of his own party for backing Biden’s infrastructure bill — did not back the censure on the floor Wednesday, arguing that ousting Gosar from his committees was “a stretch too far.”
Other moderates, too, are eager to look past Gosar’s behavior and get back to hammering Democrats for their agenda. Rep. Jeff Van Drew (R-N.J.) said “nobody’s perfect” and it was time to “move on.”
The New Jersey Republican also sought to downplay threats within his party after he voted in favor of the infrastructure bill, along with 12 other Republicans: “Nobody’s going after me, a couple members said something, but everybody else is great in there. I haven’t had a problem.”
The GOP’s push to unify comes as members are largely upbeat about their prospects for retaking the majority. But they also acknowledge that party flare-ups don’t help.
It’s hardly a new problem for GOP leaders. This year, it’s Gosar and Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.). Before them, it was former Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) — who narrowly avoided a House censure over repeated racist remarks.
Democrats argue the House could have avoided a dramatic rebuke of Gosar on the floor if GOP leaders had taken their punishment into his own hands.
McCarthy did privately lobby Gosar to remove the video and address the controversy in a statement, which the Arizonan ultimately did. Gosar also apologized to his own GOP colleagues behind closed doors on Tuesday, when he stood up and explained to the conference that the intention of the video was to try to reach a younger audience. But Gosar has made no formal apology to the Democrats who were in the video.
“I have said decisively, there is no threat in the cartoon other than the threat immigration poses to our country,” Gosar said in a speech delivered on the House floor Wednesday, before the censure vote. “If I must join Alexander Hamilton, the first person attempted to be censured by this House, so be it.”
The lack of action is a shift from a decade ago, when Boehner was hardly shy about taking action against rabble-rousers in his conference, such as when he kicked off a half-dozen Freedom Caucus members for bucking leadership on certain votes in 2012.
But some Republicans say leadership loses their ability to keep members in line once they’ve already been kicked off a committee, leaving them with limited to no tools to rein in troublesome members.
On the other hand, McCarthy is facing a push by members of the House Freedom Caucus and some rank-and-file members who are arguing for action against the Republicans who voted to pass the bipartisan infrastructure bill earlier this month.
Greene, the freshman firebrand, is calling on those Republicans to lose their committee assignments. Adding to the tension, some of those Republicans say Greene posting their office’s phone numbers on Twitter — which she did because of their vote — has led to death threats for members like Upton.
Out of the 13, Rep. John Katko has faced the most fire from his colleagues. GOP leaders had urged the Republicans who planned to vote in favor of the bill to hold until the end to avoid helping Democrats, according to GOP sources. Katko, the ranking member on the House Homeland Security Committee, was the first Republican to vote in favor of the bill.
Katko’s name was repeatedly mentioned during the GOP conference meeting Tuesday, as some pushed for him to be stripped of his top committee role. But other Republicans have grown exasperated with GOP members going after each other.
“I never even saw the video Gosar posted. It’s probably stupid. And this movement to punish those 13 Republicans is also stupid,” said Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R-Texas).
Anthony Adragna contributed to this report.