As the House prepared to hold its 14th vote for speaker late Friday night, Kevin McCarthy and GOP leaders seemed quite confident that they finally had the votes. Their smiles quickly faded: McCarthy still didn’t have the support he’d need to prevail.
Shortly before midnight, as it became clear that the Republican leader was poised to fail once again, and as emotions ran hot, McCarthy and others focused their pressure on Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida, one of the ringleaders of the GOP’s anti-McCarthy faction. As NBC News reported, one member in particular tried to apply pressure in an unusually aggressive way.
After Gaetz voted present — leading to uncertainty over the outcome of the 14th ballot for speaker late Friday night before it was officially announced that McCarthy had lost — McCarthy approached Gaetz in the back of the chamber. A tense back and forth ensued, while a number of Republican lawmakers began to crowd them. Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Ala., appeared to lunge in the direction of where Gaetz was sitting, but was held back by other members.
The Alabaman appeared a little too eager to physically confront Gaetz, and Rogers was trailed on the floor by Republican Rep. Richard Hudson of North Carolina. As Rogers approached Gaetz, it was Hudson — who seemed to understand what was about to happen — who grabbed Rogers from behind before matters could escalate further.
In case this isn’t obvious, actual violence on Capitol Hill, perpetrated by sitting members of Congress, is incredibly rare. The caning of Charles Sumner in 1856, for example, remains one of the most shocking events in American political history. A related brawl on the House two years later was less shocking, but it led one Mississippi congressman to have his hairpiece ripped from his head.
But the rarity of such confrontations is partly what made Friday night’s hostility so remarkable: Members of Congress routinely refer to colleagues, even those they hold in contempt, as their “friends.” They do not move toward literal, physical fights inside the chamber.
For those looking for evidence of a House Republican conference that’s increasingly out of control, Rogers offered disheartening proof.
The fact that the Alabaman will chair the House Armed Services Committee added insult to near-injury: Rogers, a 20-year veteran of the institution, knows better than to conduct himself in such a fashion.
In fairness, it’s worth emphasizing that the two members appear to have resolved the matter amicably. Rogers expressed regret over the incident, and Gaetz said he thought Rogers should face no consequences as a result of the incident. Chances are, this will soon become an unfortunate footnote to the stories about the chaotic circumstances.
But before the political world moves on, it’s important to acknowledge the fact that some Republicans weren’t altogether disappointed to see one of their colleagues prepare to attack another.
Rep. Chip Roy of Texas, for example, told CNN’s Jake Tapper yesterday, in reference to the incident, “We need a little of that. We need a little of this sort of breaking the glass in order to get us to the table.” Asked about the same confrontation, Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio added, “Sometimes democracy is messy, but I would argue that’s how the founders intended it.”
Putting aside the fact that the Constitution’s framers feared factionalism, these reactions made it sound as if a potentially violent fight on the House floor is somehow understandable, and perhaps even a healthy demonstration of passion.
That’s clearly wrong. Republicans should be embarrassed by the fact that one of their members had to be physically restrained before he could reach another one of their members. The obvious expectation must that be federal policymakers in the world's preeminent superpower can resolve disagreements without threats.
Rogers' behavior should be considered indefensible, not something “we need a little of.”