‘Same clown car with a different driver’: House GOP goes off the rails

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The House GOP has descended, as one member put it, into “schoolyard bully bullshit."

Republicans cannot agree on basic policy priorities or even fund the government without a majority of Democratic votes. Individual lawmakers are going rogue on the House floor with theatrical efforts to censure colleagues and impeach members of the Biden administration. A growing number of lawmakers are choosing to retire because they feel it’s impossible to get anything done.

Amid months of intra-GOP drama, this week stands out: Former Speaker Kevin McCarthy was accused of kidney-punching one of his detractors. House Oversight Chair James Comer (R-Ky.) lashed out at a Democratic colleague, calling him a “liar” and a “smurf.” Then on Wednesday, conservatives blocked another GOP spending bill, forcing Speaker Mike Johnson to send members home early on a losing note.

Rep. Kelly Armstrong (R-N.D.), who compared Republicans’ infighting to grade school bullying, said Johnson was doing his best with the party's slim margins, but the party is still a mess.

“It's the same clown car with a different driver,” Armstrong said. And unless the GOP could figure out a way to regain control of the floor, he warned: “We essentially don't have the majority.”

Many lawmakers blame those flaring tempers on being in Washington for an unprecedented 10 weeks in a row. Former Speaker John Boehner famously warned that members should never be in D.C. longer than three weeks. House Majority Whip Tom Emmer (R-Minn.) quipped with a laugh Wednesday: “I don't think we would have gotten through week 11. I really don't.”

But others fear this isn’t just the usual, been-stuck-together-too-long griping, and the House won’t get any better when members return after Thanksgiving. On the surface, Johnson and his leadership team have kept the chamber functioning, like with this week’s bill to avert a pre-Thanksgiving shutdown. But that only passed with help from Democrats, which means conservatives have drawn a fresh target on the new speaker’s back.

“People have not gotten over themselves at all. We need to get the hell out of here and just really have some separation,” said Rep. Bill Huizenga (R-Mich.), who observed that members are talking openly about possibly retiring in a way he hasn’t seen before. “It's awfully hard to see how we're going to break this, because it's going to take people getting over themselves and putting themselves side by side to work together.”

The emotional, 22-day speakership battle has Republicans still feeling raw. One member, Rep. Mike Bost (R-Ill.), said his stress over the ordeal manifested in physical symptoms — headaches and an upset stomach that occasionally led him to vomiting. The anger culminated in a now-infamous clash between Bost and Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) during a closed-door conference meeting, when Bost yelled at the instigator of McCarthy's ouster to "sit down."

“It took a lot of prayer to get through it,” Bost said, noting his symptoms began to alleviate once they elected Johnson.

Adding to the boiling tensions, House conservatives on Wednesday tanked another appropriations bill that they described as weak — and took a victory lap just after Johnson was forced to cancel votes and send members home through Thanksgiving.

“We've had enough. We're sending a shot across the bow,” House Freedom Caucus Chair Scott Perry (R-Pa.) told reporters after the vote, flanked by a half-dozen other conservatives.

Perry was one of many hardliners who took aim at fellow Republicans on Wednesday, demanding Johnson show them a wholesale plan to cut spending rather than resurrecting individual bills that keep floundering on the floor. They urged the speaker to prove that he is willing to fight for conservative priorities, many of which are DOA with the Democratic-controlled Senate and the White House.

"One thing. I want my Republican colleagues to give me one thing. One. That I can go campaign on and say we did. One," conservative Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas) said in a floor speech Wednesday. (Democrats wasted no time in turning his statement into campaign fodder.)

Several hardliners telegraphed the spending move beforehand, warning there would be payback for Johnson’s bipartisan spending bill to avoid a shutdown earlier this week. That threat immediately drew concerns from Republicans across the party, who worried about what it meant for the rest of their time in the majority — including the next spending deadline on Jan. 19.

“Republicans have a choice: We can work together to get conservative victory or we can bicker, squabble, take hostages and lose,” said Rep. Dusty Johnson (R-S.D.). “Some of my colleagues, I don’t get the sense that they’ve been a part of very many successful teams.”

Rep. David Joyce (R-Ohio), a senior appropriator, put it more bluntly: “Folks believe they are independent agents.”

The conservative tactics could easily backfire, many members point out. Some Republicans predict if they can’t get a bill to the floor on their own, it will lead to GOP centrists leapfrogging their ultra-conservative colleagues and cutting deals with Democrats. And Republicans essentially have only two months to figure it all out.

Amid all the drama, eight House members have announced in the last four weeks that they're leaving Congress.

That includes Rep. Debbie Lesko (R-Ariz.), a third-term Republican who surprised several of her colleagues by announcing — right in the middle of the GOP speaker infighting — that she wouldn’t return in 2025. In an interview with POLITICO, Lesko called the place “totally dysfunctional,” adding that she felt more effective in her time back in the state legislature.

“It's a very frustrating environment, and then the whole speaker thing … I don't know that I want to be in this environment,” Lesko said. She recalled that once, her husband was in the Republican cloakroom when fellow House members began ridiculing each other: “My husband's like, 'Wow, that was rude.' And I was like, 'That's how they talk. That's their endearment talk.'"

Some House members have even begun to eye their retiring colleagues with envy.

“A lot of people are saying, ‘I can’t look at a horror show at home,’ and deciding that they don't want to be here anymore,” said Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.). And the senior Democrat suggested that he, too, had a lot to think about over the holidays as he and his colleagues were “evaluating the value of staying.”

Still, some members maintained a sense of humor, making jokes about an already infamous moment of their week: When Rep. Tim Burchett (R-Tenn.) accused McCarthy of elbowing him in the halls, which the Californian denied.

"Did he hit my kidneys? Was that my kidneys?" Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.) quipped as Rep. Kevin Hern (R-Okla.) walked behind him, before pretending to dramatically stumble. "I almost fell over — you guys were witnesses! It was violence."

But on a serious note, Diaz-Balart said of the House GOP mood: “The tensions are really, really, really, really high.”

Nicholas Wu, Anthony Adragna, Katherine Tully-McManus and Caitlin Emma contributed to this report.