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Incidents suggest some congressional Republicans need a timeout

Congress hasn’t exactly covered itself in glory in 2023, but at least there hasn’t been alleged violence or public threats of violence — until today.


The 118th United States Congress hasn’t exactly covered itself in glory this year. It started with an extended fiasco as Republicans struggled to elect a House speaker, and in the weeks and months that followed, conditions deteriorated from there.

There was an unnecessary debt ceiling crisis. And a near government shutdown. And a vote to censure Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff for reasons I still can’t figure out. And the first-ever ousting of a House speaker, followed by a three-week debacle in which the GOP majority rejected several nominated successors. It’s possible we might even see a government shutdown later this week.

But at least there hasn’t been violence or public threats of violence involving members — until this morning. Politico reported on Republican Rep. Tim Burchett of Tennessee accusing former House Speaker Kevin McCarthy of elbowing him in a Capitol Hill hallway.

Burchett told reporters that McCarthy elbowed him in the back as he was speaking with a reporter and that the Tennessee Republican chased after him: “I ran after McCarthy and I said, ‘What’d you do that for?’ He acted like, ‘Oh, I didn’t do anything.’” Burchett had yelled back: “Hey Kevin, have some guts.” He also called McCarthy a “jerk,” an exchange witnessed by POLITICO.

The Tennessee Republican soon after told reporters that the former House speaker delivered “a clean shot to the kidney.” Burchett appeared on CNN and added that McCarthy gave him a “sucker punch.”

For his part, McCarthy denied that he elbowed Burchett, insisting it was simply “a tight hallway.” For context, it’s also worth noting that Burchett was one of the eight House Republicans who stripped McCarthy of his gavel early last month.

As best as I can tell, video footage of what may or may not have happened is not yet available, though it’s worth emphasizing that physical altercations among elected officials on Capitol Hill are extraordinarily rare in modern times.

So too are threats of physical altercations among members and committee hearing witnesses, and yet, this incident unfolded during a Senate hearing this morning.

For readers who can’t watch clips online, this was a hearing of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, and among the witnesses was Sean O’Brien, the president of the Teamsters. He and Republican Sen. Markwayne Mullin of Oklahoma have been trading verbal jabs for months.

It was against this backdrop that the GOP senator this morning read aloud some of the criticisms O’Brien has published to social media, concluding, “You want to run your mouth, or we can be two consenting adults and we can finish it here.” O’Brien said that would be fine with him.

“You want to do it now?” Mullin asked. “I would love to do it right now,” the Teamsters’ chief replied.

“Well, stand your butt up then,” the senator added, to which O’Brien said, “You stand your butt up.”

At that point, the Oklahoma Republican did, in fact, get up, presumably in preparation for some kind of confrontation, at which point Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders intervened and tried to settle things down.

There’s congressional dysfunction and then there’s this.

Maybe some GOP lawmakers would benefit from a timeout?

Update: A reader with a good memory noted an incident from January in which Republican Rep. Mike Rogers of Alabama appeared to lunge toward Republican Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida.