WASHINGTON, May 20 (Reuters) – A week after House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy gambled he could unify his caucus by ousting a prominent critic of former President Donald Trump, a new Trump-inspired rift has raised questions about his leadership.
Thirty-five Republican representatives in the U.S. House of Representatives – or one out of every six – joined the 219 majority Democrats in voting to create a bipartisan commission to investigate the Jan. 6 U.S. Capitol riot, when hundreds of Trump supporters stormed the building, fighting with police and leaving five people dead.
That was more than three times as many Republicans as voted in January to hold Trump’s second impeachment trial, on a charge of inciting insurrection.
The vote followed a series of gyrations in which McCarthy gave Representative John Katko the go-ahead to negotiate the bipartisan deal https://www.reuters.com/world/us/us-lawmakers-seek-form-bipartisan-panel-jan-6-attack-2021-05-14, then rejected it after it became public and tried to persuade his fellow Republicans to vote against it.
The vote would appear to weaken McCarthy, a California lawmaker who hopes to become speaker of the 435-member House if his party can assemble a majority with just five more seats in the November 2022 congressional election.
Loyal to Trump, McCarthy, 56, with 14 years in Washington, last week led his party in ousting Representative Liz Cheney from a House leadership role for denouncing Trump’s false claim his election defeat was the result of fraud.
“Representative McCarthy may have put his own ambition above loyalty to our Constitution,” said party strategist Kevin Kellems. “It eventually will harm him and his followers.”
McCarthy himself denied any loss to his leadership. When asked where the Cheney ouster and commission vote left him, he said: “Just stronger.”
He told reporters that he had expected a larger number of Republicans to break ranks.
Several Republicans who spoke on condition of anonymity said they had not expected a commission deal that would reach the House floor.
Some lamented that the deal between Katko and Homeland Security Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson, a Democrat, had not been put to a party conference vote before a final agreement.
“It would have been good for us to have voted on it,” Representative Thomas Massie, a staunch conservative, said without mentioning McCarthy.
Republican hopes of blocking the bipartisan commission now rest with McCarthy’s Senate counterpart, Mitch McConnell, who has also come out against it. McConnell has the easier job, as that 100-member chamber’s rules require 60 votes to advance most legislation, meaning 10 Senate Republicans would have to break with their party to pass it.
Republicans worry the commission would keep public attention on the violence that played out in the Capitol after a fiery speech by Trump filled with falsehoods, and could reveal new details about Trump’s handling of the response that might sour voters on Republicans.
EYES ON SPEAKER’S GAVEL
With a Democrat in the White House, history favors Republican chances of breaking Democrats’ 219-211 majority in the House in the 2022 midterm election.
McCarthy, who has spent a decade in the upper echelon of House Republican leadership, has been sharply criticized for voting to block Democratic President Joe Biden’s election, reversing course after saying Trump bore responsibility for the Capitol attack and visiting the former president at his Florida resort in a move seen as helping to rehabilitate Trump’s image in the aftermath of the violence.
He justified the ouster of Cheney, the daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney, as an effort to forge party unity.
Multiple Republicans defended McCarthy’s position.
“Kevin puts the team first. This is a difficult and stressful time. I think he’s making the best decisions that anyone could make in a super-charged atmosphere,” said Representative Tom Cole.
But Republicans who oppose Trump criticized the action, saying it cemented the former president’s hold over the caucus.
They voiced concern that the vote could undermine hopes of capturing the House majority in 2022, if it leads Trump-inspired primary challengers to unseat incumbents in swing districts where many voters dislike the former president.
Republicans who voted for the commission included lawmakers such as Mariannette Miller-Meeks of Iowa, who won a contested election by just six votes, and Don Bacon, whose Nebraska district chose Biden over Trump in November by 52% to 46%.
“What it really boils down to is how President Trump is going to react to Republicans supporting this measure,” said Republican strategist Ron Bonjean. “If they don’t show Trump that they’re against this, there’s potentially going to be issues for many Republicans in their primaries.”
Trump in a Thursday statement lashed out at what he called “35 wayward Republicans.”
“Sometimes there are consequences to being ineffective and weak,” Trump said. “The voters understand!” (Reporting by David Morgan; Editing by Scott Malone and Howard Goller)