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For Hoyer and McCarthy, the Floor Dance is Getting Tense

The veneer of civility between party leaders on the House floor is thinning.

The often stylized and closely watched partisan dance that the leaders carry out seemed to crash down entirely during the heated debates over funding for the Department of Homeland Security, raising questions of whether the two sides can work together on major legislation in coming months.

The capping moment came Feb. 26 when a highly contentious colloquy between House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California and Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland ended with Hoyer muttering, “You coward,” referring to McCarthy in a comment that was picked up by a microphone.

Hoyer apologized to McCarthy a short time later. But the dramatic break from the decorum illustrated the rancor that has spread through the chamber in the 114th Congress.

Hard-line conservatives demonstrated their anger this week after the House Republican leadership gave in on the DHS funding bill (HR 240).

For Democrats, the frustration has been building as they have watched Republican management of House procedures and scheduling.

“This Congress has started with closed rules, no hearings and anything but regular order,” Hoyer told McCarthy in January.

Hoyer’s colloquies with McCarthy’s predecessor, Eric Cantor of Virginia, were highly combative, particularly in their early showdowns when Hoyer held the upper hand with Democratic control of the chamber. But the two, who are from neighboring states, showed genuine mutual respect in the 113th Congress as the House stumbled through tough fiscal confrontations and Hoyer and Cantor went through seemingly choreographed discussions while looking to score political points.

In the lively first two months of the 114th Congress, Hoyer has taken issue with numerous closed rules blocking debate of amendments, bills coming to the floor with little notice or bypassing committee consideration. 

McCarthy, with the weight of the majority behind him, has stood his ground, pointing to bipartisan votes in the House and at times deferring procedural questions to the Rules Committee. 

McCarthy’s bow to Rules during one February colloquy drew a laugh from Hoyer since it came as GOP leaders were still trying to figure out a strategy on the DHS bill. The majority-run Rules panel in general advances rules on the voting for bills based on leadership directions.

Hoyer, 25 years McCarthy’s senior, is a well-liked professional legislator who has been in public positions for nearly 50 years and even enjoys a warm relationship with Speaker John A. Boehner. But that hasn’t kept him from sparring with Republicans on the floor.

The simmering discord boiled over on Feb. 26 when Hoyer pushed McCarthy over House Republicans’ plan to fund the DHS with a three-week continuing resolution.

“Mr. Leader, we have been now, you’re correct, six weeks leaving the Department of Homeland Security twisting in the wind. We’ve done that, as the gentleman knows  . . .  ” Hoyer said before being cut off by McCarthy.

“Mr. Speaker, reclaiming my time,” McCarthy said, “I’ve been very clear about the schedule tomorrow: We will end our work by tomorrow evening. This House has taken action to make sure the DHS is fully funded we did our part.”

Hoyer turned away and said, “You coward,” before presiding officer Rep. Mike Simpson could advance the House to its next vote.

The next day, Hoyer addressed the event on the floor. 

“I rise to publicly apologize to Leader McCarthy for a remark I made to myself that was picked up by the House microphone yesterday,” Hoyer said. “It was said out of frustration and anger, it was wrong and I have apologized privately to Mr. McCarthy, who I believe is a man of integrity in this House.”

J.M. Rieger contributed to this report.

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