Some House lawmakers are privately refusing to work with each other. Others are afraid to be in the same room. Two members almost got into a fist fight on the floor. And the speaker of the House is warning that “the enemy is within.”
Forget Joe Biden’s calls for unity. Members of Congress couldn’t be further divided.
Just weeks into the 117th Congress, the bedrock of relationships hasn’t been on such shaky ground in more than a generation, with a sense of deep distrust and betrayal that lawmakers worry will linger for years. And those strains could carry long-term effects on an institution where relationships — and reputations — matter more than almost anything else.
“This is a real tension,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), who was among the roughly two dozen Democrats barricaded into the chamber during the Jan. 6 riots and later contracted coronavirus after spending hours in a safe room with Republicans who refused to wear masks. “I don’t know if that’s repairable. It is certainly a massive chasm that exists right now between a large majority of the Republican caucus and all of us Democrats across the ideological spectrum.”
The friction is particularly intense in the House, where two-thirds of the GOP conference voted to overturn the election just hours after lawmakers were attacked by a mob that demanded that very action. The position of those 139 members is now threatening to upend decades of relationships in the House, forcing long-time colleagues to work through their raw emotions and palpable anger in the weeks since the attack.
“I’ve really been struggling with it,” added Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Mich.), who was also in the chamber when rioters breached the building. “I have a hard time interacting with those members right now, especially with those I had a closer relationship with… I’m not going to deny the reality — that I look at them differently now. They’re smaller people to me now.”
Multiple Democrats said they are privately mulling whether to sever ties completely with those Republicans, as their caucus weighs potential forms of punishment — particularly for those still-unnamed members who House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said gave “aid and comfort” to the insurrectionists.
Some Democrats, particularly moderates, argue that their party has no choice but to move on. Several said they’ve privately taken their GOP colleagues to task for the decertification vote, confronting them about their position in private calls or delivering half-joking, expletive-filled rants in the hallways, insisting that they’re still willing to partner on bills.
Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), who opposed certifying the election, said he stands by his position, though he did consider changing it after rioters stormed the Capitol with him and his staff inside. Cole was inside his office on the building’s first floor, where rioters pounded on the door and called out his name.
Cole — the top Republican on the House Rules Committee who is in his 10th term said several Democrats have confronted him to ask him about his vote.
“A couple of them have had questions, and I’ve patiently sat down and explained to them,” Cole said. “It was a tough call, I went back and forth on whether or not I should do it. But the sentiment in my district was very strong.”
But many Democrats say they remain livid at those 139 Republicans, and say it’s tougher to move on amid ongoing security threats that continue to target members. Party leaders have also stepped up security inside the chamber itself — widely seen as an acknowledgment that some GOP members could still be threats.
Those tensions didn’t just materialize on Jan. 6. Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) said she’d been expecting some kind of flare-up after observing the rise of the far right for years. On the day of the vote, Lee — who had to escape the Capitol on Sept. 11, 2001 in high heels — decided to wear tennis shoes, just in case.
“I’ve been thinking about it. I haven’t talked to any of them about it, because I’m just furious,” said Lee, who sits on the Appropriations panel — a long-time bastion of bipartisanship — where 14 out of 26 Republicans voted to reject the results.
“You can’t compartmentalize, because you know that this is real. I don’t know if they believe it’s real, I don’t know if they understand that Donald Trump, he opened Pandora’s box,” Lee said, adding that the behavior can’t go unpunished and she believes more violence could be ahead. “We need to do something.”
Unlike after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, there has been no moment of unity on Capitol Hill. Instead, the atmosphere is more charged.
“It’s sad we’re not more unified, to ensure we protect the institution,” said Rep. Rodney Davis (R-Ill.), who has called for an independent, Sept. 11-style commission to probe the mob attack that left five people dead. Davis did not vote to overturn the election.
In fact, hours after the riots, as lawmakers resumed the election certification process, Reps. Andy Harris (R-Md.) and Colin Allred (D-Texas) nearly came to blows on the House floor, with Harris furious that Democrats accused him of being a liar. Their colleagues rushed-in to intervene.
Rep. Dusty Johnson (R-S.D.), a member of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus who did vote to certify Biden’s election, said the episode was “jarring” to witness and shows how “tempers remain high.”
“The immediate aftermath of January 6th, has in some ways, complicated efforts toward bipartisanship,” Johnson said. “I am hopeful that some of the anger and irritation will fade … Because clearly, if we’re going to get good things done for this country, it’s going to require Democrats and Republicans working together.”
In another example of the rising levels of toxicity, Rep. Jason Smith of Missouri — the top Republican on the House Budget Committee — tweeted out an email from a staffer for Rep. Cindy Axne (D-Iowa) declining to work with him.
Axne’s office later said she has continued to work with Republicans since Jan. 6, including those who did vote against certification, though a spokesman said she remains “appalled at those Members of Congress who chose to validate the falsehoods that led to a violent insurrection.”
Republicans, meanwhile, are urging their Democratic colleagues to heed Biden’s calls for unity, arguing that demands to expel or blackball GOP lawmakers, along with the speedy impeachment of Trump, could poison the well for future bipartisanship.
They point to the Democrats’ push to punish freshman Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) for her past incendiary and offensive rhetoric, including peddling a false conspiracy theory that the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary in 2012 was a hoax.
But Democrats counter that they can’t just simply move on when they say Republicans fueled Trump’s dangerous lies about the election, putting their own lives at risk. That includes the actions of GOP leaders: House Democratic Caucus Chairman Hakeem Jeffries has called House GOP leader Kevin McCarthy an “organized crime underboss.”
Authorities are investigating whether any GOP lawmakers played a role in the insurrection. While law enforcement have released no details about specific members, Democrats have been quick to point to members like freshman Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.), who live tweeted the speaker’s whereabouts as rioters stormed the Capitol.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), who regularly faces a barrage of threats against her, dismissed GOP Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas in a tweet after he signaled that the two of them could work together on a congressional probe into GameStop’s recent stock trading.
“I am happy to work with Republicans on this issue where there’s common ground, but you almost had me murdered 3 weeks ago so you can sit this one out,” Ocasio-Cortez fired back at Cruz, who led an effort in the Senate to challenge Biden’s win.
Further complicating matters is the potential security threat that still exists at the Capitol, which prompted Democrats to implement new safety measures — metal detectors outside the House chamber.
Republicans have complained that Democrats were targeting their own members, but Democrats said it proved justified after the screening revealed that one Republican, Harris, attempted to bring a weapon onto the floor. They plan to pass a bill next week requiring steep fines for any Republicans who sidestep the metal detector, adding to existing fines for GOP members who refuse to wear masks.
The tensions aren’t just between members of opposing parties: Infighting within the GOP has reached new heights as the party wrestles with its direction in the post-Trump era, prompting McCarthy to plead with Republicans to stop ripping each other apart in public.
Many House GOP members have turned on Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), the No. 3 Republican, for her vote to impeach Trump. Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), a top Trump ally, went so far as to travel to Wyoming to campaign against her this week.
Of course, there have been other heated moments in Congress, including three years ago when the fiercely divided Senate devolved into bitterness over now-Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation. Other members have pointed to the 1960s civil rights movement. But for many, the atmosphere in Congress has never felt more poisonous. And interpersonal relationships were already strained amid the pandemic, which has transformed how lawmakers live and legislate on Capitol Hill.
“Do I think in the history of the republic there’s been more difficult times? Yeah.” Cole said, citing the civil unrest around the Vietnam War and the assassinations of national leaders in the 60s. But he added: “It’s pretty raw.”
Heather Caygle contributed to this report.
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