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McCarthy accused of elbowing lawmaker, while fight nearly breaks out in Senate

Rep. Tim Burchett (R-Tenn.) speaks to reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington on Oct. 13. MUST CREDIT: Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post  (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)
By Azi Paybarah,Marianna Sotomayor and Liz Goodwin Washington Post

Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) declared during his weekly news conference Tuesday that the House “is a pressure cooker” after lawmakers have spent roughly a dozen grueling weeks together in the halls of Congress.

That was evident minutes beforehand when Rep. Tim Burchett (R-Tenn.) came up behind Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and began yelling in his ear, accusing him of elbowing him in the back as they passed each other in a crowded hallway.

The Senate saw fireworks of its own Tuesday as Sen. Markwayne Mullin (R-Okla.) brought a hearing about corporate greed to a standstill as he confronted one witness, stood up and challenged him to a fistfight.

The breakdowns in decorum came as lawmakers were laboring to avoid a government shutdown and make sure they can leave town ahead of an anticipated Thanksgiving break. The House in particular has been in session for 10 straight weeks, a stretch that featured an unprecedented removal of the speaker - McCarthy - and a contentious election among Republicans to replace him that exposed deep, long-simmering rifts within the party.

Joanne B. Freeman, a history and American studies professor at Yale University who wrote a book detailing the history of violence in Congress, wrote on X, formerly known as Twitter: “Please stop providing fodder for Field of Blood volume two.”

Freeman told The Washington Post on Tuesday evening that it was important for lawmakers to denounce belligerent behavior and threats of violence, particularly when it comes from a member of their own party. “If no one speaks up it becomes representative of what that party stands for,” she said.

The episode between Burchett and McCarthy was not captured on video but was witnessed by reporters.

“Hey Kevin, why did you walk behind me and elbow me in the back?” Burchett asked as The Post interviewed McCarthy. “You have no guts.”

“I didn’t do that,” McCarthy replied. As Burchett continued to yell, McCarthy laughed and said, “Oh my God.”

Burchett was one of eight Republicans who voted to oust McCarthy as House speaker, a rebuke the California lawmaker has bitterly noted, publicly and privately.

“You are so pathetic,” Burchett said before slowing his steps to avoid being directly behind McCarthy.

“Thank you, Tim,” McCarthy said.

Afterward on CNN, Burchett said: “I got elbowed in the back and it kind of caught me off guard cause it was a clean shot to the kidneys.”

Burchett said he turned around “and there was Kevin.”

Moments later, Burchett said, “I chased after him of course,” before calling the former speaker “a bully with $17 million and a security detail.”

Burchett also said he was not likely to file a formal ethics complaint because he expects McCarthy to lose reelection next year. But a complaint against the former speaker was filed by Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), who led the effort to oust McCarthy. The incident “deserves immediate and swift investigation by the Ethics Committee,” Gaetz wrote.

“This Congress has seen a substantial increase in breaches of decorum unlike anything we have seen since the pre-Civil War era,” he added. “I myself have been a victim of outrageous conduct on the House floor as well, but nothing like an open and public assault on a Member, committed by another Member.”

McCarthy denied intentionally assaulting Burchett but acknowledged he may have inadvertently bumped into him while they were in a crowded hallway.

“I would not elbow. I would not hit him in the kidney,” McCarthy told reporters. They were in a hallway and “I guess our shoulders hit.”

McCarthy later added, “I guess our elbows hit as I walked by,” and “If I would hit somebody they would know I hit them.”

He also brushed aside a question about Gaetz filing a complaint to the Ethics Committee, telling reporters, “I think Ethics is a good place for Gaetz to be.”

Over in the Senate, Mullin confronted Sean M. O’Brien, general president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, during a hearing titled “Standing Up Against Corporate Greed: How Unions are Improving the Lives of Working Families.”

Mullin, who says in his biography that he turned his family’s plumbing business into “the largest service company in the region,” began reading a June 21 social media post by O’Brien that questioned the lawmaker’s business acumen. The two had sparred previously over the senator’s claims of business success.

“Greedy CEO who pretends like he’s self made,” Mullin read Tuesday, quoting O’Brien’s post. “In reality, just a clown & fraud. Always has been, always will be. Quit the tough guy act in these Senate hearings. You know where to find me. Anyplace, Anytime cowboy.”

Mullin, then speaking to O’Brien, said, “Sir, this is a time and this is a place,” pointing his finger to the floor between the two men. “You want to run your mouth, we can be two consenting adults. We can finish it here.”

After O’Brien said that would be “perfect,” Mullin asked, “You want to do it now?”

“I’d love to do it right now,” O’Brien said as he sat the table where witnesses and guests routinely speak to lawmakers.

“Stand your butt up then,” Mullin shot back.

“You stand your butt up,” O’Brien responded.

After Mullin stood up, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), the committee’s chairman, could be heard on video saying, “Stop it” and “sit down.”

Amid the cross talk, O’Brien could be heard saying, “Is that your solution?”

Sanders, imploring Mullin to sit down, said, “You’re a United States senator!”

O’Brien later appeared on CNN and said Mullin “chose to not act like a U.S. senator, and he’s going to have to pay the consequences for that.”

Confrontations among lawmakers have become more commonplace in the House, particularly as more extreme and vocal members from each party have prioritized partisan wins over bipartisan compromise in recent years.

Much of the tension intensified after the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the Capitol. Months after her election to Congress, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) chased Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) off the House floor with taunts. That same year, Greene got into a public shouting match with Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.) over abortion rights.

This year started off with Rep. Mike D. Rogers (R-Ala.) being physically restrained after lunging toward Gaetz for continuing to block McCarthy from becoming speaker. And after Gaetz successfully led the charge to oust McCarthy nine months later, he and Rep. Mike Bost (R-Ill.) also got into a heated confrontation in a closed-door GOP meeting after the Florida Republican lightly threatened colleagues for possibly supporting a measure to temporarily elect Speaker Pro Tempore Patrick T. McHenry (R-N.C.) to the post.

Besides physical confrontation, House members have increased their use of passive-aggressive measures to penalize their colleagues in the years since the Jan. 6 attack.

The House had not censured any sitting members for 11 years until 2021, when then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) led the charge to censure Rep. Paul A. Gosar (R-Ariz.) for circulating an anime video showing him killing Ocasio-Cortez and attacking President Biden. Democrats also voted to strip Gosar and Greene of their committee assignments in an unprecedented move by the majority party.

In apparent retribution, McCarthy led the motion to censure Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) for investigating Russia’s involvement in the 2016 election of Donald Trump and removed Reps. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.) and Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) from their committees earlier this year.

And in just the past two weeks, Republicans introduced multiple censures of Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) - the only Palestinian American in Congress - accusing her of making incendiary comments against Israel in its war with militant group Hamas, while Democrats also introduced resolutions to condemn Greene and other Republicans.

House Republicans have also been quick to introduce motions to impeach Biden and Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, both of which have been referred back to committees by most Republicans who would much rather follow the regular order of investigations.

Many Republicans have privately balked at how quickly the House has devolved into tit-for-tats or physical taunts.

“We’re living in what I would say are fairly polarized times,” Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), the No. 2 Senate Republican, said. “Emotions are running high and … it’s up to all of us to try to set a good example.” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said he hadn’t heard of the incident involving Mullin but that it was not his job to control the behavior of everyone in the building.

Mullin, for his part, seemed to celebrate the moment he threatened to fight a Senate witness, resharing a social media post that said, “They were getting ready to throw down in the Senate.”

The physical confrontations on Tuesday overshadowed another confrontation in Washington, in which House Oversight Committee Chairman James Comer (R-Ky.) angrily denied that he had participated in the kind of financial impropriety with members of his family that resemble accusations levied at Biden and his family by Comer and some of his Republican colleagues.

Rep. Jared Moskowitz (D-Fla.) noted that Comer has publicly accused Biden of evading taxes while out of office in a transaction that included a loan to his brother. “It has come out in the public that you also do business with your brother with potential loans,” Moskowitz said, before offering to yield his time at the hearing to Comer, so he can explain.

“I would love - I would love it,” Comer said, before saying “all this bulls—-” had been investigated and no wrongdoing was found.