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‘Shame!’: 10 memorable moments from six months of divided government

118th Congress kicked off with House GOP infighting and a floor shutdown

Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., speaks to reporters as Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., walks down the House steps on May 18.
Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., speaks to reporters as Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., walks down the House steps on May 18. (Bill Clark)

ANALYSIS — The 118th Congress has delivered on forecasts it would not send President Joe Biden much legislation to sign into law. It also has delivered on predictions of fireworks aplenty.

On the one hand, lawmakers and Biden averted a catastrophic federal debt default. On the other, Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., is constantly looking over his right shoulder at rebellious conservatives.

Most of the action has occurred in the House, from the prolonged fight for the speaker’s gavel to GOP infighting to a bipartisan vote on a debt and spending deal that rankled those very conservatives. A recent shutdown of the House floor raised still-unresolved questions about whether the speaker can remain in power.

“The only real sign of progress since January was the debt ceiling agreement, and the House Republicans’ reaction to it was so intense that I do not expect it to be repeated,” said William Galston, a former Clinton White House aide now at the Brookings Institution.

“I don’t know what will happen between now and the end of the year,” he added, “but I don’t expect it to be productive — or pretty.”

Here are 10 memorable moments from the first six months of divided government in Washington.

Speaker tussle

It was the opening battle of the 118th Congress: McCarthy negotiating almost around the clock with the most conservative members of his conference before finally securing the speaker’s gavel after 15 ballots over three days.

The fracas set the tone for how the chamber has operated, with McCarthy both bending to Freedom Caucus members and defying them. The rebels appear to want to “shift power from the Speaker to House members,” as Thomas Jipping, a former Senate Judiciary Committee chief counsel and now a Heritage Foundation fellow, wrote in February. Six months later, how they want to do that remains murky.

‘We all apparently agree’

It was surreal. It was unprecedented. And it, so far, has held.

Biden and House conservatives went back and forth during his State of the Union address in the House chamber in February about his claim they intended to cut Medicare and Social Security. Some GOP members reacted loudly in a rowdy scene that saw Biden pounce.

“So, folks, as we all apparently agree, Social Security, Medicare [are] off the books now. … All right, right,” he added with a big thumbs-up beside his lectern on the House rostrum as members of both parties stood and loudly applauded. The unscripted moment lacked only Biden’s signature aviator sunglasses. “We got unanimity.”

The June debt and spending deal did not contain cuts to either program.

‘New day’

Biden and McCarthy both emerged from their negotiations with more political capital. The president used his first Oval Office address to hail delivering the very kind of compromise he ran on in 2020. The speaker pulled a rare twofer: He called the House passage of the deal an example of a “new day” of bipartisanship and beat back calls from his far-right faction to come for his gavel.

McCarthy’s proclamation, however, ignored the bill’s carrot for the other side, a lack of deep spending cuts, that caused more Democrats than GOP members in his chamber to vote “yes.” Floor votes since have shown no evidence House Democrats are lining up to support Republican bills. But the fallout from the deal may have produced the opposite effect, as moderate Republicans frustrated with the way the conference’s right flank later lashed out (see below) have occasionally voted with Democrats against GOP amendments.

A former House GOP member, Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., said before recess that his former colleagues seem to want a “Republican king.” Just not one named King Kevin, though they acknowledge they have no speaker candidate who could secure enough votes to take the gavel.

Floor stoppage

When 11 conservatives knocked down a rule that would set the parameters for floor debate on bills they ideologically supported, it raised a key question: What do they want?

Spending cuts were one answer, and McCarthy responded by setting up a shutdown showdown with the Senate as the House began writing most fiscal 2024 appropriations bills at levels lower than he’d agreed to in the debt limit package.

“If they make good on their threat to set appropriation levels below the numbers specified … the result will be fiscal deadlock and another government shutdown,” Galston said. “Nor am I hopeful that the House can find common ground with the administration, or Senate Republicans, on continuing aid to Ukraine.”

But what else do the rebels want? Six months after the speaker’s fight, if the conservatives even know, they’re not saying publicly. But they are making threats to again shut down the floor if McCarthy does not agree to amend their alleged “power-sharing agreement” — which both sides say was never formally written down — to their liking.

Censuring Schiff

In a dramatic scene on June 21, former House Intelligence Chairman Adam B. Schiff, D-Calif., was summoned by McCarthy to the well of the House chamber.

McCarthy informed him a majority of his colleagues had just voted to censure him over alleged false statements he made about former President Donald Trump colluding with Russians.

“Shame! Shame! Shame!” Democrats chanted, some gathered in a circle around Schiff. “I’ve got all night,” McCarthy said to them as they held up the proceedings in one of the session’s most dramatic moments — so far, at least.

Judge this

Meanwhile, in the Senate …

… the chamber has been much quieter than the noisy House. It mostly has churned through Biden’s judicial picks and some executive branch nominees. The Senate has confirmed 40 Biden-picked federal judges since the 118th Congress was seated and expects that pace to continue when senators return next month.

D.C. deflection

The Senate also raised the ire of many in the District of Columbia when it backed a House GOP bill to block an overhaul to the local criminal code that the city had adopted.

Some 81 senators voted to nix the local measure, including 33 who caucus with Democrats. (Fourteen voted to uphold the D.C. action.)

Democrats, echoed by Biden as he signed the blocking measure, argued the overhaul would have jammed up D.C.’s already slow-moving courts, among other flaws. The action was viewed as a blow to the District’s so-called “home rule,” but the city’s council and mayor could put forth a revised version.

Impeachment imbroglio

McCarthy and top lieutenants found a way to buy time for around 20 of their most vulnerable members to avoid voting on impeaching Biden. For now.

They struck a deal after conservative Rep. Lauren Boebert, R-Colo., tried to force an immediate vote on impeaching the president, sending her measure to two committees instead. That solved one political problem. It also exposed a simmering one: Boebert’s feud with Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., who accused Boebert of copying her impeachment articles, then forcing a vote on her own measure. The pair had an angry exchange on the floor, during which Greene later admitted to calling Boebert a “little b***h.”

The incident allegedly got Greene booted from the House Freedom Caucus, but there seems to be little indication the two firebrands are going to call a truce.

Tuberville on defense

A former high school football safety and college defensive coordinator, the former Auburn and Texas Tech head coach knows a thing or two about blitzing and shutting down a methodical running game.

That is what, as noted above, the Senate has become when it applies to processing Biden’s judicial picks. But the Alabama senator has rankled even his GOP mates by blocking all Defense Department promotions over a Pentagon abortion policy.

The blockade remains with no sign of Tuberville dropping it, and it’s another sign of how important abortion will be in 2024.

Committee kerfuffle

In a 218-211 party-line vote, House Republicans voted Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., off the Foreign Affairs Committee.

The spectacle put race and religion front-and-center in American politics — yet again. Omar is a Somali-born Muslim who had been critical of Israel and U.S. support for the Jewish state. She later apologized, but House Republicans insisted on the move to boot her from her assigned panels.

“Is anyone surprised that I am somehow deemed unworthy to speak about American foreign policy or that they see me as a powerful voice that needs to be silenced?” Omar said during a Feb. 2 floor speech minutes before the vote.

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