Sometimes it feels like Congress is trying to parody itself.
As lawmakers stagger toward the Thanksgiving recess after some of the ugliest and most unproductive weeks in years, the place is coming completely unglued.
Despite the House passing a stopgap funding bill to keep the government open beyond this week, representatives acted out a farce Tuesday. The joke was on Americans deprived of a serious, functioning government. And don’t forget the people of Israel and Ukraine who are waiting in vain for billions of dollars in help from the US as they wage existential fights for their futures.
The 118th Congress, which took an initial step to punt funding deadlines to the winter, looked more like a fourth grade class on a day that will further erode trust in government ahead of next year’s elections. That might be fine by some of the hard-right conservatives who abhor Washington and see chaos as a worthy goal in itself. But on the eve of President Joe Biden’s critical summit with President Xi Jinping, the political tomfoolery will only bolster perceptions among US adversaries like China that America’s global power is being undermined by polarization at home.
Kidney shots, cage matches and smurfs
In one extraordinarily frivolous episode on Tuesday, Kevin McCarthy – until recently the most powerful elected Republican in the country – was accused of delivering a painful blow to Rep. Tim Burchett, one of the GOP rebels who ousted him as speaker. “It was a clean shot to the kidneys,” the Tennessean told CNN’s Manu Raju.
The former GOP leader repeatedly denied the claim, blaming a tight hallway for the collision. Then, in a flash of bravado, McCarthy added: “If I kidney punched someone, they would be on the ground.”
But it wasn’t even the most fiery showdown of the day.
Across Capitol Hill in the world’s so-called greatest deliberative body, Oklahoma Republican Sen. Markwayne Mullin was spoiling for a prize fight. He told Sean O’Brien, general president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, to “Stand your butt up!” and challenged him to a bout. Mullin was angry at past tweets in which O’Brien apparently called him a “clown.”
“You want to do it now?” Mullin asked.
“I’d love to do right now,” O’Brien replied from the witness table.
A flabbergasted Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders waved his arms, banged his gavel and complained that he was supposed to oversee a hearing not a cage match.
“God knows, the American people have enough contempt for Congress, let’s not make it worse,” Sanders warned, reminding Mullin he was a US senator.
The normally sleeping confines of the wonkish Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee had never seen anything like it. But Mullin, posing as a Sooner State folk hero, explained to reporters he had no choice but to answer the bell. “You don’t do that in Oklahoma. You don’t run your mouth unless you’re gonna answer the call,” said the former Mixed Martial Arts fighter.
Mullin told CNN’s Dana Bash on Wednesday that he had every intention of coming to blows with O’Brien.
“I’m not somebody that’s going to say we go around and fight all the time. I got paid to fight. But I will say that every now and then, you do and you should be taught a lesson,” he told CNN.
Back in the House, tempers were fraying.
Democratic Rep. Jared Moskowitz got embroiled in a bitter exchange with House Oversight Chairman James Comer over the latter’s probe into the Biden family’s business affairs. After the Florida Democrat accused the Kentucky Republican of hypocrisy, Comer hit back with a bizarre riposte that will baffle future historians leafing through the congressional record. “You look like a Smurf here,” he said. Moskowitz couldn’t let it lie, writing on X that “Gargamel was very angry today.” For the many non-afficionados of the animated series, Gargamel was an evil wizard who hunted Smurfs for fun.
GOP Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia – normally the ringmaster of the Capitol Hill circus – found herself overshadowed. Yet the Georgia Republican did get into it with fellow GOP Rep. Darrell Issa, who questioned her maturity over her failed attempt to impeach Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas. Greene responded with a social media post suggesting her California colleague was lacking in a certain area that she implied with various emojis of balls from different sports.
What the chaos shows
The fevered scenes reveal deep dysfunction and dislocation in divided Washington, where anger and personal vitriol has consumed the political system. Donald Trump-style stunt politics has often become dominant in the Capitol. Congress is consumed by fighting within and between the parties. And the febrile mood is only likely to intensify in the coming election year. Normal standards of decorum and respect have been thrown in the trash, and nearly three years after the Capitol insurrection, trust is fractured.
Congressional leaders said the near altercations and foul tempers reflected the stress of an extraordinary session that saw the House sit for 10 weeks in a row, ignoring the fact such behavior would be a sackable offense in many workplaces.
“Everybody’s tensions are high,” McCarthy said. South Dakota Sen. John Thune – a member of GOP leadership – noted with understatement that we are living in “fairly polarized times.” He added: “There is a lot going on not only here but around the world. Emotions are running high.”
Some people might see the gravity of global crises – including heart-breaking footage from the Middle East following the horrendous Hamas terror attacks against civilians and the carnage in Gaza wrought by Israel’s response – as a reason for greater seriousness among the nation’s leaders.
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, however, suggested that policing the Capitol was beyond even his wily capacity to enforce discipline within his conference.
“It’s very difficult to control the behavior of everybody who’s in the building. I don’t view that as my responsibility. That’s something the Capitol Police will have to deal with,” the Kentucky Republican said.
One disaster averted, or perhaps merely postponed
In one minor miracle, the chaotically dysfunctional House of Representatives did manage to take steps Tuesday to avert a threatened government shutdown, passing a plan to temporarily fund the federal machine. The Senate still needs to approve the measure, which would only delay the next funding deadlines until early next year.
But even the House’s vote exposed the forces that threaten to tear the chamber apart again soon, with 93 Republicans opposing the bill. Conservatives are smarting at rookie Speaker Mike Johnson’s failure to include massive spending cuts that have no chance of getting past the Democratic-run Senate or Biden’s White House and that would guarantee a shutdown that would damage the GOP and bring pain to millions of Americans.
Their recalcitrance meant that Johnson was forced to rely on Democratic votes to get it through the House, using exactly the same maneuver that cost McCarthy his job last month.
So effectively, because the GOP majority in the House is so divided, it’s only operable if Democrats want it to be.
And only in the malfunctioning Congress would a speaker try to prevent one government shutdown by laying the possible path for two others. That’s because Johnson’s “laddered” approach funds one slice of the government until mid-January and another until early February.
In deciding not to topple Johnson for adopting the same strategy as McCarthy, the rebel bloc bolstered an impression that personal rather than ideological animus was behind their political regicide.
“I mean, hypocrisy in Washington is nothing new,” Rep. Patrick McHenry, who served as interim speaker, said. Some hardliners, however, suggested Johnson was getting a pass only because he was new in the job. And veteran GOP Rules Chairman Tom Cole indicated that trauma left by the aftermath of one speaker’s demise meant no one was ready for another round.
“I think when you touch a hot stove once, you don’t do it twice,” the Oklahoma Republican told CNN.
It may just have been a coincidence of course. But Johnson, on a day when he needed to replenish some of the political capital he earned as the most right-wing speaker in history, chose to endorse Trump for president on CNBC. “I’m all in for President Trump. I expect he’ll be our nominee, and he’s going to win it, and we have to make Joe Biden a one-term president.”
Thus, a speaker – who, as a backbencher, helped orchestrate some of Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election – signed up again with an ex-president whose mob invaded Congress on January 6, 2021, and who falsely claims that his looming four criminal trials are part of a plot to interfere in the 2024 election.
Israel and Ukraine have nothing to thank Congress for
The most glaring example of Congress’ failure to fulfill its duty on Tuesday came at a pro-Israel demonstration on the National Mall. Johnson joined Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, House Democratic leader Hakeem Jeffries and Iowa GOP Sen. Joni Ernst on stage in a show of solidarity with the Jewish state.
With the Capitol dome — a citadel of democracy for generations — over his shoulder, Johnson stared out over the crowd and the waving blue and white Israeli flags and declared: “There are few issues in Washington that so easily bring together leaders of both parties and both chambers but the survival of the state of Israel and her people unites us together.”
Until recently, that was true. There have been few easier bills to pass than those sending aid or weapons to Israel.
But in one of his first acts, Johnson complicated Biden’s emergency $14.3 billion request for Israel by loading it up with budget cuts for the Internal Revenue Service that are unacceptable to the Senate and the White House. The message is clear: once sacrosanct measures vital to US national security are now only possible if the extreme right-wing fringe of the GOP majority can get a payoff.
Israel is not alone in being neglected.
The people of Ukraine, deep into the second year of Russia’s vicious attempted conquest, are still waiting for an even bigger aid package requested by Biden. Large numbers of House Republicans want to cut support for a democratic nation reliant on US and European assistance as their mentor, Trump, vows to end the war within hours if he’s elected president, presumably on the terms of his friend Vladimir Putin.
Johnson, who has repeatedly voted against aid for Ukraine, hasn’t ruled out a new package. But he’d almost certainly have to rely on Democrats again, further fraying his authority. On the Senate side, bipartisan negotiations are taking place on a package that would twin Ukraine aid with spending on security on the southern border to give cover to Republicans. No breakthrough is in sight as Republicans accuse Democrats of not showing seriousness in the talks.
But while exhausted and aggravated lawmakers head home for their Thanksgiving dinners, time is running out for Ukraine.
“Ukraine is going to have trouble getting bullets for their guns in a couple of weeks,” Connecticut Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy warned on Monday.
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