Kevin McCarthy foe accuses former speaker of 'sucker punch' elbow in Capitol hallway

Rep. Tim Burchett, R-Tenn., speaks to reporters as Republicans meet to decide who to nominate to be the new House speaker, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Monday, Oct. 23, 2023. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
Rep. Tim Burchett (R-Tenn.) says former House Speaker Kevin McCarthy deliberately elbowed him in the back: "It was a clean shot to the kidney." (Alex Brandon / Associated Press)

Tennessee Rep. Tim Burchett accused former Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield), whom he helped oust from the post last month, of elbowing him in a Capitol Hill hallway on Tuesday.

"You just don't expect a guy who was at one time three steps away from the White House to hit you with a sucker punch in the hallway," Burchett said later.

McCarthy denied the charge, telling reporters that he "didn’t shove or elbow him, it’s a tight hallway." Burchett insisted that McCarthy hit him deliberately, telling reporters that he “can still feel it."

"It was a clean shot to the kidney," he told reporters.

A reporter present backed Burchett's account.

Burchett's back was to McCarthy and his team when "McCarthy shoved Burchett," NPR's Claudia Grisales, who was interviewing Burchett in a Capitol hallway, wrote on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter.

"Burchett lunged towards me. I thought it was a joke, it was not," Grisales wrote.

Burchett then yelled, according to Grisales, "Why'd you elbow me in the back Kevin?! Hey Kevin, you got any guts!?"

Burchett told the reporter that McCarthy was a "jerk" before taking off after McCarthy down the hall. When he caught up to McCarthy, he yelled, "Hey Kevin, why'd you walk behind me and elbow me in the back?"

"I didn't elbow you in the back," McCarthy replied.

"You got no guts. You did so," Burchett responded. "What kind of chicken move is that. You're pathetic man, you are so pathetic."

As Burchett walked away from McCarthy, he again told Grisales that McCarthy is a "jerk" before directly yelling to the Californian, "You need security Kevin!"

Burchett later told CNN that Grisales' retelling was "very accurate." He said the exchange is "symptomatic of the problems that [McCarthy] had in his short tenure as speaker."

He said the blow to his back "still hurts because it was a shot to the kidneys" but said he wouldn't file an ethics complaint on McCarthy. "He's not worth it. He's gonna be gone here either after Christmas or next year."

Burchett was skeptical of McCarthy's claim that he did not intend to elbow him. Burchett added that he was one of the eight who voted to oust McCarthy, noting "that hallway, there's plenty of room. You can walk four side by side. He chose to do what he did. It will end right here, I'm sure. It will be a little asterisk on his storied career."

Burchett added: "I pray for him. I hope he finds some happiness in his life."

McCarthy doubled down on his account, telling reporters that the swipe was unintentional.

“If I hit somebody, they would know it," he said. "If I kidney punched someone, they would be on the ground.”

A longtime McCarthy Republican adversary, Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz, filed a formal ethics complaint on the Californian hours after the exchange. Gaetz, who led the eight rebel Republicans in ousting McCarthy, was not present for the incident. Still, he labeled it an "assault," saying McCarthy violated the chamber's code of conduct and should be formally investigated by the House Ethics Committee.

McCarthy has been weighing whether to run again for his seat since he was removed from party leadership last month.

The historic vote thrust the lower chamber into chaos as Republicans failed for three weeks to pick a new speaker. The House eventually settled on Louisiana's Mike Johnson to be the next House speaker after passing over three other lawmakers — House Majority Leader Steve Scalise of Louisiana; Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan, chair of the Judiciary Committee; and Majority Whip Tom Emmer of Minnesota.

Spokespersons for McCarthy, Gaetz and Burchett did not respond to a request for comment.

The incident occurred just hours before the House is scheduled to vote on bills to avert a government shutdown.

On the other side of Capitol Hill, a Senate hearing on labor issues got tense when Oklahoma Sen. Markwayne Mullin read aloud an old tweet from Teamsters General President Sean O'Brien, who was testifying, in which O'Brien promised to confront the senator "any place, any time, cowboy."

"Sir, this is the time. This is the place," Mullin told O'Brien. "You want to run your mouth, we can be two consenting adults. We can finish it here. Do you want to do it right now?"

Mullin stood after O'Brien replied "yes," and seemed to try to take off his wedding ring. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who presided over the hearing, raised his voice and told Mullin and the witness to cool off.

During a news conference Tuesday afternoon, Johnson, the new speaker, noted that Capitol Hill “is a pressure cooker," adding that lawmakers have been in Washington for 10 weeks.

Get the best of the Los Angeles Times’ politics coverage with the Essential Politics newsletter.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.