When two parallel political dramas collided in a House Republican conference room on Wednesday night, the result was a telling one for the future of the party after Donald Trump.
In fact, it’s almost like he never left.
In a marathon closed-door meeting, Republican lawmakers closed ranks around Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA), the QAnon-sympathizing conspiracy theorist, while some spent hours dragging Rep. Liz Cheney (R-WY), the third-ranking House Republican who voted to impeach Trump for inciting the Capitol riot on Jan. 6.
Cheney ultimately survived a challenge to her position in leadership in a conference vote Wednesday night, on a vote of 145 to 61, according to multiple reports. She will remain chair of a GOP conference that is hurtling down a very different path than the one she might want. Meanwhile, Greene—who was revealed last week to have endorsed social media posts calling for the assassination of Speaker Nancy Pelosi—received a standing ovation from GOP lawmakers after she gave brief remarks defending herself during the meeting, according to Punchbowl News’ Jake Sherman.
The House GOP leader, Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), is trying to hold this fractious family together as he eyes reclaiming the majority in 2022. He praised and defended Cheney during the meeting, but according to two sources familiar, he spent more time mounting a defense of Greene, who is facing a Democratic-led push to remove her from her committee assignments.
That echoed a statement McCarthy released Wednesday afternoon, in which he “unequivocally” condemned Greene’s comments and said he gave her a talking-to. But he mostly blamed Democrats for “distracting” Congress with the push to remove Greene in a “partisan power grab,” and gave no indication he’d discipline her in any way, much less remove her from posts on the House Budget and Education Committees.
And while McCarthy defended Cheney’s vote to impeach Trump as a matter of conscience, rank-and-file members decried her for exposing them to attacks through the way she announced her position. Ultimately, more GOP lawmakers spoke up in defense of the Wyoming Republican than against her, according to a Cheney ally. And the final vote to keep her in leadership reflected what had been the conventional wisdom in GOP circles for weeks: that most members, even if they disagreed with her vote, respected her and wished to keep her as a leader.
That Greene got off without so much as a slap on the wrist but Cheney faced a vote on her fitness to serve as a leader rankled GOP aides longing for the brand of conservatism Cheney brings to the table—rather than the one that, like Greene, suggests that Jewish-controlled satellite lasers start wildfires.
Before the meeting, GOP aides were saying that Greene’s mounting controversies had begun to overshadow the effort from a group conservative agitators to oust Cheney from leadership. Democrats, incensed over Greene’s conduct and past claims, increasingly put pressure on their party leaders to back dramatic action to reprimand her. Many rank-and-file Democratic lawmakers have thrown their support behind booting Greene not only from her committees but from Congress altogether. A bill to expel the Georgia Republican from office, introduced last week by Rep. Jimmy Gomez (D-CA), has nearly 70 cosponsors as of Wednesday.
And on Monday, a resolution from Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL) began circulating to remove Greene from her assignments on the House Education & Labor Committee and the House Budget Committee.
Those measures picked up support as McCarthy continued promising a “conversation” with Greene but avoided any commitment—or even any hints—on what he might do to discipline her.
Some aides in both parties grumbled that the Democrats’ move to force a floor vote might let McCarthy off the hook. But then they moved to use the resolution as a sword of damocles to hang over the GOP leader, with Democratic leaders saying that if he did not remove Greene from committees, they would move forward with a vote to do it themselves—which is slated for Thursday.
Ahead of Wednesday, many Republicans thought a floor vote on Greene’s fate to be a worst-case scenario. Democratic campaign officials are already vowing to make Greene an anchor for the GOP in the 2022 midterms by tying her to every vulnerable lawmaker and a vote putting them on the record defending her would make that task infinitely easier.
Pelosi telegraphed these attacks on Wednesday afternoon just before the meeting began, sending a press release with the subject line, “McCarthy (Q-CA) Fails to Lead, Hands Keys to Party to Greene.”
A GOP operative, speaking anonymously to The Daily Beast to describe dynamics candidly, said “it’s completely idiotic” for McCarthy to subject his conference to a possibly damaging floor vote on Greene.
But by Wednesday afternoon, many Republicans had settled on two methods of attacking Democrats while avoiding any reckoning with Greene and her place in the party: by deflecting to certain Democrats, or by decrying the process.
Some GOP lawmakers began reviving the push from two years ago to remove Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) from her committees because of remarks that invoked anti-semitic tropes—though, notably, Omar apologized while Greene has only doubled down in self-defense.
Then, at a meeting of the House Rules Committee to consider the resolution removing Greene from her committees, GOP lawmakers decried it as a rush to judgment on someone who hadn’t even made the incendiary statements while in office.
“What are we doing, Mr. Chairman?” asked Rep. Jackie Walorski (R-IN), the top Republican on the House Rules Committee, who said Greene’s punishment by a Democratic majority would set a damaging precedent. “I am not here to defend Rep. Greene,” she said. “I am here to defend the process of the House.”
Democrats had a straightforward rejoinder. "If the precedent is that we remove people from committees who've called for assassinations,” said Rules Committee Chair Jim McGovern (D-MA), “I'm fine with that."
Cheney, meanwhile, had a far better stretch than Greene did leading up to Wednesday. With the focus squarely on the freshman Georgia congresswoman after a string of reporting revealing her outlandish past comments, the effort to oust her from leadership—which according to the instigators, supposedly had as many as 100 backers—seemed to stall for the time being. “I don’t think the votes are there,” said one House GOP aide before the meeting, who noted the Greene drama was “overshadowing” Cheney.
Powerful Republicans also came to Cheney’s defense: Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY), the Senate GOP leader, left little doubt as to where he came down on this intraparty war. On Monday, he issued statements in which he praised Cheney as a “leader of deep convictions,” while saying Greene backed “loony lies” and was a “cancer” on the party.
McConnell, however, may no longer be reflective of his party’s base, and the tricky politics that many Republicans face as they seek to maintain the base’s support. Rep. Jim Banks (R-IN), a longtime Cheney ally who told The Daily Beast last year he hoped to see her as the party’s first woman speaker, declined on Wednesday to say if he’d support her in a vote but offered he was “disappointed” in her remarks.
“When I take on a leadership position, I take on an added additional responsibility of representing a lot of other members who at the same time that they might feel differently than I do about an issue,” said Banks, who is a member of House GOP leadership. “I don't throw them under the bus or use rhetoric or attack a fellow colleague.”
Sen. Cynthia Lummis, a first-year Republican from Cheney’s home state of Wyoming and who previously held the House seat Cheney now occupies, declined to defend her. Capitol Hill reporters asked her three questions about Cheney’s fate, and she gave the same noncommittal answer each time: “The House should do what the House chooses to do.”