GOP fighting in Congress could hurt Republican election chances in 2024, some conservatives worry

A series of physical confrontations and near confrontations involving multiple lawmakers on Tuesday made for a bizarre day in Congress.

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“This place is a pressure cooker,” House Speaker Mike Johnson said at a Tuesday morning press conference on Capitol Hill.

He had no idea.

A series of physical confrontations and near confrontations made for what Axios would later deem “one of Congress’ most bizarre days in recent memory,” with the beacon of democratic governance turning, at moments, into a boxing ring.

Senator Markwayne Mullin listens at his seat during a hearing.
Sen. Markwayne Mullin at a hearing on Tuesday in the Dirksen Senate Office Building. (Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call via Getty Images)

All instigated by pro-Trump Republicans, the three incidents could alienate voters already concerned with polarization and extremism, some political observers say. “They’re a dysfunctional mess who are going to lose the House,” said former Rep. Joe Walsh, now a conservative commentator, in a conversation with Yahoo News. “All of this shit they’re going through, none of it is based on issues,” he said.

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Elbow, meet kidney

Representative Kevin McCarthy walks along a Capitol hallway.
Rep. Kevin McCarthy in the U.S. Capitol Building on Tuesday. (Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

Tennessee Rep. Tim Burchett was speaking to NPR reporter Claudia Grisales in a Capitol Hill hallway when he was approached by California Rep. Kevin McCarthy, Johnson’s predecessor as House speaker.

McCarthy then reportedly appeared to elbow Burchett in the kidney, leading the latter to give chase — while Grisales captured the entire astonishing encounter on social media.

McCarthy denied intentionally hitting Burchett, who was one of a handful of Republicans to vote against saving McCarthy’s post as speaker last month. “If I would hit somebody, they would know I hit them,” he said.

Burchett did not appear to be convinced. “It’s just a sad commentary on his life. I’m sorry for him. I really am. I feel sorry for him,” he lamented.

McCarthy was also the subject of an ethics complaint from Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz, who used a parliamentary tactic known as a motion to vacate to remove McCarthy from the speakership after he worked with Democrats to keep the government from shutting down.

Congressional expert Norman Ornstein speculated that McCarthy may have been jealous of Johnson’s apparent success at avoiding an ouster, at least thus far, for the sin of keeping the government from shutting down. “I think his frustration level boiled over when he saw that Johnson was immune from criticism or a motion to vacate for doing what caused McCarthy the speakership,” Ornstein said.

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Ready to rumble

Sean O’Brien, the president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, sits at a Senate hearing.
Sean O’Brien, president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, testifies at a Senate hearing on Tuesday. (Screengrab: Yahoo News)

Even before Tuesday, Teamsters president Sean O’Brien wasn’t exactly a huge fan of Oklahoma Sen. Markwayne Mullin, having taunted him as a “clown” and a “fraud” — and challenging him to a fight — in a June social media post.

Mullin decided to revisit the post during a Tuesday hearing of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee on labor unions. He read the post from the podium, as O’Brien, one of the hearing’s witnesses, sat several feet away.

“You want to run your mouth, we can be two consenting adults, we can finish it here,” Mullin — a former mixed martial arts fighter — said, rising from his seat.

Independent Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, the committee chair, quickly stepped in to play the role of peacemaker. “You are a United States senator. This is a hearing, and God knows the American people already have enough contempt for Congress. Let’s not make it worse,” he said sternly to Mullin.

Mullin, though, was unrepentant — and seemed to use the moment as an opportunity to increase his national profile. “I thought, ‘You know, maybe this guy can be taught a lesson,’” he said Wednesday afternoon on CNN.

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Time for a ‘mental health day’?

Representative James Comer sits during a hearing.
Rep. James Comer at a House Oversight Committee hearing in the Rayburn House Office Building on Tuesday. (Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)

And the day was not yet done.

The face of the Republican effort to impeach President Biden — because of allegedly improper involvement in his son Hunter’s financial dealings, though no convincing evidence of such involvement exists — is Kentucky Rep. James Comer, who chairs the House Oversight Committee.

On Tuesday afternoon, however, Comer was confronted during a hearing by Democratic Florida Rep. Jared Moskowitz about a $200,000 loan he’d made to his brother. Comer then erupted at Moskowitz, comparing him to a “Smurf.”

Later, both men took to their respective outlets to press their case. “I wasn’t gonna sit there and let Moskowitz lie about me and my family,” Comer told Fox News anchor Sean Hannity.

Moskowitz, for his part, spoke to CNN. “Obviously, the chairman clearly needs a mental health day,” he said of Comer on Wednesday. “So, I hope he gets that.”

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A tense moment in Washington

Speaker of the House Mike Johnson meets with reporters.
Speaker of the House Mike Johnson at the Capitol on Tuesday. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

Some saw in Tuesday’s incidents a politics that increasingly gives in to the worst excesses of popular entertainment. “Politics is downstream of culture,” one senior GOP strategist said, echoing the famous observation of conservative journalist Andrew Breitbart.

“We have seen all the norms of civility and basic courtesy shredded in recent years,” Ornstein told Yahoo News. “In a broader culture of violence, it is not a shock that it would come to Congress.”

No one looms larger in American culture than former President Donald Trump, the frontrunner for the 2024 GOP presidential nomination, who during the 2016 presidential campaign frequently enjoined his supporters to assault protesters. He’s widely viewed as the chief instigator of the violent mob that stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.

“They’ve learned from Trump,” Walsh said of today’s Republican lawmakers.

All three of Tuesday’s confrontations involved Republicans closely aligned with Trump.

“I do think there’s a part of the electorate that has zero interest in policy and very uninformed policy views but is attracted to things like WWE,” said Republican strategist Liz Mair, using the acronym for World Wrestling Entertainment. “The spectacle, the aggression, the getting in fights because so-and-so trash-talked you.”

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Lingering damage

Having avoided a government shutdown, Johnson decided to start the Thanksgiving break early.

A vacation may cool tempers, but American voters may well remain disgusted by what they saw on Tuesday. “For the Republican base, this is gold,” Walsh told Yahoo News. “But for the average American, this is death. This is why the Republicans are going to lose the House.”

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