After ten straight weeks in session that included the ousting of the House Republican leader, a grueling speaker’s election, and multiple censure and expulsion fights, lawmakers are on the verge of beating each other to death, literally.
Act 1 of “To Kill a Member” began with a bizarre confrontation between Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif. and Rep. Tim Burchett, R-Tenn., who accused the former speaker of elbowing him in the back while passing by in the hallway following a GOP conference meeting. Burchett was doing an interview with NPR reporter Claudia Grisales when he suddenly fell forward, as McCarthy walked past with his security detail.
“Why’d you elbow me in the back Kevin? Hey Kevin, you got any guts? Jerk!” Burchett yelled. He then ran after McCarthy and confronted him again, calling him pathetic when the former leader denied elbowing him. Burchett, one of the eight Republicans who helped topple McCarthy’s speakership, later told CNN the Californian had thrown a “sucker punch” into his kidney, calling him “a bully with $17 million and a security detail,” and “the type of guy who when you were a kid would throw a rock over the fence and run home and hide behind his mama’s skirt.”
Gaggling with reporters later, McCarthy denied he’d intentionally hit Burchett and loudly groaned “Ohhhh come on now!” when told the lawmaker claimed to have been left in pain by the blow. But by then, McCarthy’s chief antagonist in the House, Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., had already filed an ethics complaint against him about the dustup. (Reporters also noted that former Rep. Adam Kinzinger had in his book accused McCarthy of body checking him on two separate occasions.)
The Senate side had its own near brush with bedlam, when Sen. Markwayne Mullin, a former professional mixed martial arts fighter, challenged Teamsters President Sean O’Brien to a brawl in the middle of a Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee hearing. The incident was the culmination of a running feud between the two men, and reignited on Tuesday with Mullin reciting taunting tweets O’Brien had directed at him during the summer, including one that read: “Quit the tough guy act in these senate hearings. You know where to find me. Anyplace, Anytime cowboy.”
“Sir, this is a time, this is a place,” Mullin said. “You want to run your mouth, we can be two consenting adults, we can finish it here.”
“OK, that’s fine. Perfect,” O’Brien said.
“You want to do it now?” Mullin fired back. “Stand your butt up then.”
O’Brien replied, “You stand your butt up, big guy,” at which point Mullin rose out of his seat.
Sen Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. started pounding his gavel. “Hold it. Sit down!” he shouted. “You’re a United States senator, sit down.”
Decorum also broke down during a House Oversight Committee hearing after Rep. Jared Moskowitz confronted Chair James Comer over loans he’d given to his brother. “You look like a smurf just going around in all this stuff,” Comer responded. Moskowitz, who describes himself as “vertically challenged,” was wearing a plaid blue suit and matching blue tie.
Some members at least managed to keep the acrimony to the Internet. After Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif. criticized her effort to impeach Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene responded with a post on X calling her colleague a “pussy.”
It is typically not considered a sign of a healthy political environment when physical violence (or the threat of it) starts flying around a legislature. Dr. Ruth Ben-Ghiat, a New York University professor who studies authoritarianism, said in an email that “it is not surprising that Congress becomes a place of conflict” when the Republican Party has increasingly treated threats and bullying as acceptable methods to “conduct business as a party.”
Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., offered a similar sentiment when Semafor asked him about the incident between Mullin and O’Brien, and connected the hothouse environment in Congress to Donald Trump’s rhetoric about his political opponents.
“I wouldn’t like the union boss’s chances against Markwayne in the ring but the broader issue is getting out of control,” he said. “I mean when you have candidates for the presidency, referring to our opponents as ‘vermin,’ when you have these sorts of comments, I'm just over that. It is to me the antithesis of what people are looking for in leadership, particularly in the challenging times we're in now.”