Rising tensions among GOP lawmakers in the House and Senate peaked Tuesday, with a former Speaker allegedly taking a kidney shot at another lawmaker, while a senator invited the Teamsters president to fight him during a hearing.
The embarrassing spectacle came as House lawmakers spent their 10th consecutive week in Washington — with a Republican conference again unable to unify around a spending measure.
It began with an accusation that former Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) had elbowed Rep. Tim Burchett in the back as the Tennessee Republican, one of eight GOP members who voted to end McCarthy’s Speakership a little more than a month ago, was conducting an interview with a reporter from NPR.
Moments later, Sen. Markwayne Mullin (R-Okla.), a burly former mixed martial arts fighter, was was challenging Sean O’Brien, president of the Teamsters, to a fight during a hearing before the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee.
As Mullin stood up to challenge O’Brien to meet him inside, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), the HELP chair, pleaded with the GOP lawmaker to sit down, reminding him he was a U.S. senator.
Lawmakers were part dismayed and part bemused by the double shot of problems, which comes days before they are set to decamp for their states and districts for the Thanksgiving recess.
“Yeah, there’s a little tension in the air, I suppose, understandably. But you also have personalities,” said Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.). “When Bernie Sanders is the guy trying to bring order to chaos, you know things are chaotic because, quite honestly, he’s usually the entertainer and not the referee.”
“Ever since we got rid of the powder wigs, this place has been devolving,” Cramer continued. “It’s time to pass a [continuing resolution] and get the hell out of here for a bit.”
Both troubles stemmed from personal bad blood that has spilled into public. Burchett was among the eight House Republicans who voted to boot McCarthy from the Speakership last month, prompting three weeks of House GOP tumult to pick his replacement, leaving fractures that remain unhealed.
McCarthy maintained later Tuesday that the contact was incidental.
“If I would hit somebody, they would know I hit them,” the ex-Speaker told reporters.
As for Mullin, he repeatedly defended his actions. The former MMA fighter and a member of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame panned O’Brien to reporters as a “thug,” said he’s been “running his mouth forever” and “probably should have [his] butt whupped.”
“He’s the president of a union. I’m still a guy from Oklahoma. If you’re going to say something stupid like that, then back it up,” Mullin said.
“No, not at all,” he added when asked if he had any regrets. “At any day, you could back up and say that situation could have been handled different. How do you not handle it that way when he says, ‘Anytime, anyplace cowboy.’ And then he continued it. You’re going to say that to me, and expect me to not say anything back to you? He didn’t do his research good enough.”
Some lawmakers took Mullin’s situation in stride. Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) appeared to smile and jokingly punch the air while walking behind Mullin and a gaggle of reporters after they took part in the Senate GOP’s whip meeting.
Sanders lamented the back-and-forth came up during what he had hoped was an important hearing on unions and “standing up against corporate greed.”
“I think it’s a little bit absurd. We were there to be talking about … the crisis facing working families in this country, and the growing gap between the very rich and everybody else, and the role that unions are playing in improving the standard of living of the American people,” Sanders said.
“We are not there to talk about cage-fighting,” Sanders added.
News of the Burchett-McCarthy dust-up brought an interesting connection to light. When asked if he’d seen what happened between Burchett and McCarthy, Mullin told The Hill that he wouldn’t take the Tennessee congressman’s word for what happened and noted that he had kicked Burchett out of his long-established daily workout group last week.
Mullin, a longtime McCarthy ally, pointed to a “lack of character on his part” and said that he doesn’t “trust” Burchett. He noted that he’s had lawmakers of different stripes take part in the workouts, even at contentious times, including Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (I-Ariz.) and former Sen. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.) when they ran against each other in 2018, Rep. Jason Crow (D-Colo.) when he was a manager for former President Trump’s first impeachment trial, and Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.) when he ran for president.
“I don’t have a problem with your differences. But I do have a problem when you can’t respect or trust the individual that’s in front of you,” Mullin said. “I have respect and trust for the other ones. I can trust what we say. I can trust what happens among friends that it will stay among friends. I don’t trust Burchett. … He’s a man that lacks character.”
Burchett confirmed that he was booted from the early-morning workout, saying the senator “berated” and “yelled at him” until he left — which Mullin denied — and that Mullin’s friendship with McCarthy was the main reason.
Mychael Schnell contributed.