WASHINGTON — Republican divisions spilled out on both sides of the Capitol last week, providing a glimpse into the dynamics of a potential GOP takeover of Congress as history favors the party to make gains in the 2022 elections.
In the House, acrimonious infighting revealed the extent to which far-right conspiracy theorists like Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., and Lauren Boebert, R-Colo., feel empowered and expect to grow their influence if Republicans seize the majority.
Meanwhile, a narrow group of GOP senators held up a major defense bill and nearly forced a government shutdown in pursuit of stopping vaccination mandates, offering a look into the new governing challenges President Joe Biden would face if his party loses control.
The week revealed the limits of Democrats' grip on power, even though they're in charge of the White House and Congress. Wafer-thin majorities have left them struggling to finalize Biden's economic and climate bill or smoothly process must-pass legislation.
Democrats say a Republican-led Congress would empower rabble-rousers to engage in brinkmanship and create a safe space for far-right House members to push racist statements and election conspiracies.
"If Republicans take over, we will likely default on our debt and face multiple government shutdowns every year. They will prepare to overturn the Electoral College and further mainstream the incitement of violence," said Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii. "It’s extremely risky to put these people in charge — they will make Newt Gingrich look like a moderate. The Republican base is with Marjorie Taylor Greene."
The right-wing rebels may be a minority in the GOP, but they demonstrate the problems House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., would face in corralling the party if they take control in 13 months. The two met privately Thursday.
Sen. Mike Rounds, R-S.D., said Republicans have to get control of the party or risk encouraging some in their ranks to create wedges that play into Democrats' hands politically.
"We're up against deadlines. Individual members are exercising their privileged rights. And they're wedging. And as long as you encourage people to wedge, you're going to have more of it," Rounds said in an interview. "It's very unfortunate. Leadership needs to address it."
Early last week, after Rep. Nancy Mace, R-S.C., condemned Boebert's comments comparing Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., to a terrorist because of her Muslim faith, Greene chimed in to call Mace "trash." It sparked a bitter feud between the two lawmakers, with Mace using emojis to call Greene crazy.
McCarthy kept his distance, refusing to punish Boebert's racism or condemn Greene's attack on her colleague. Other GOP colleagues see Boebert and Greene, who are in their first terms, as agents of chaos, but party leaders are hesitant to criticize them as they seek to align with former President Donald Trump and boost his fabricated claims that widespread fraud decided the 2020 election.
Critics have accused McCarthy, who is wary of getting on Trump's bad side given his clout with conservative voters, of giving safe haven to racism and dangerous conspiracy theories in his bid to become House speaker in 2023 should Republicans win control of the chamber.
McCarthy dismissed the prospect Friday that the intra-caucus acrimony would compromise his ability to govern if he is speaker.
"No. We're going to be quite fine," he said in response to a question.
"If we are given the trust to be the majority, we will tackle inflation, we will secure our border, we will bring gasoline prices down, and we'll focus on the economy," he said.
Across the Capitol, a handful of right-leaning GOP senators were able to gum up the works on typically noncontroversial issues last week. Objections from Marco Rubio, R-Fla., torpedoed a vote to reauthorize defense spending. And a crusade against vaccination mandates by Mike Lee, R-Utah, and Ted Cruz, R-Texas, pushed Congress near the brink of a shutdown.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., repeatedly blamed "Republican dysfunction" for the roadblocks. The difficulty in passing a stopgap bill without changes to government funding levels points to the difficulty of reaching a full-year appropriations deal by February.
"We ought to get out of shutdown politics altogether, and it's something that a handful of people on their side insist on doing," said Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., who faces re-election next fall. "We'd be a lot better with the Democrats in control."
Adding to the elevated stakes, the conservative-dominated Supreme Court heard oral arguments in a landmark case and indicated that it is leaning toward gutting Roe v. Wade, the decision that legalized abortion nationwide. Republican victories in the midterm elections could fuel the half-century-long conservative goal of restricting or outlawing abortion.
Greene attacked Mace "as pro-abort" because Mace supports exemptions allowing abortions in cases of rape or incest. Mace replied to her on Twitter: "What I’m not is a religious bigot (or racist). You might want to try that over there in your little 'league.'"