WASHINGTON — The U.S. Congress became a schoolyard Tuesday as Republican lawmakers got into a physical altercation, seemingly threatened a committee witness and called a Democratic colleague a financially illiterate Smurf.
The Capitol is a place with big egos where tempers often flare, but this week’s ugliness underscored a likely unprecedented amount of immaturity and rancor in the building, particularly among House Republicans, whose general disarray left their chamber literally unable to function for weeks last month.
Since settling on a new speaker following the ouster of Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), Republicans got down to business by launching censure and impeachment resolutions, tanking their own government funding bills and, as of Tuesday, allegedly kidney punching.
“I used to teach 4-to-6-year-olds. They were better behaved than some of the people in this place,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) told HuffPost, shaking her head.
“We need more women in Congress,” said Sen. Tina Smith (D-Minn.) in a social media post, referring to the male-dominated rash of violence and threats at her workplace Tuesday.
The fireworks started in the morning after Republicans met in the Capitol basement to discuss a proposal by new House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) to avert a government shutdown at the end of the week. The stopgap extension of government funding will likely pass with Democratic votes — meaning it’s essentially the same thing that prompted GOP conservatives to challenge McCarthy’s leadership.
As Republicans streamed out of the meeting, McCarthy bumped into Rep. Tim Burchett (R-Tenn.) — one of eight party members who backed his ouster — and elbowed Burchett in his lower back, according to the Tennessean.
“It was a clean shot to the kidney,” Burchett told HuffPost, adding that he wouldn’t retaliate against McCarthy, but if they did fight, “it would be a very short fistfight, I can tell you that.”
McCarthy denied that he hit Burchett, telling a reporter if he had struck someone in the kidney, “they would be on the ground.”
In other words, each man said after the incident they would win if they had a real fight.
Over in the Senate, Oklahoma Sen. Markwayne Mullin (R) nearly started a fistfight with labor union leader Sean O’Brien during a committee hearing.
“If you want to run your mouth, we can be two consenting adults,” the ex-MMA fighter told O’Brien, who was testifying before the panel. “We can finish it here.”
“Perfect,” said O’Brien.
“Well, stand your butt up then,” demanded the senator.
“You stand your butt up, big guy,” O’Brien shot back, prompting Mullin to actually stand up on the committee dais as if he were about to go down and throw punches.
The reason for their spat was as high school as it gets: Mullin was upset about O’Brien’s habit of mocking him on social media, and the senator’s apparent response was to challenge O’Brien to a physical fight to prove who the real man was. Really.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), the committee chair, had to repeatedly break them up.
“Stop it. Sit down. Sit down,” he told Mullin. “You’re a United States senator!”
(Sanders was also annoyed that the exchange took focus off the reason for the hearing, which was to discuss how unions can stand up to “corporate greed.”)
Republicans laughed off the incident. Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.), wiping away tears after seeing a clip of Mullin with his colleagues at a closed-door lunch, said the whole controversy was overblown.
“We have a guy that runs around here in a hoodie and shorts pretending he’s a gangster, for crying out loud. There are no guardrails anymore,” Cramer said, taking a whack at the chosen attire of Sen. John Fetterman (D-Pa.).
But Smith, who witnessed the exchange at Tuesday’s hearing, said she wasn’t entertained.
“This kind of behavior is unacceptable,” the Democrat said, adding that she left the hearing room because she was “so upset by what Sen. Mullin did.”
“I think you ought to behave with some sense of dignity,” she added.
Meanwhile, Mullin told HuffPost that he didn’t start the fight and brushed off questions about how a senator should behave.
“I’m still a guy,” Mullin noted.
Back on the House side, Oversight Committee Chair James Comer (R-Ky.) laced into Rep. Jared Moskowitz (D-Fla.) for making a tit-for-tat corruption accusation over a Comer family loan, which Moskowitz suggested was no different from the transactions that Comer claims implicate President Joe Biden in a corruption scheme. Comer said Moskowitz was “financially illiterate” and that the accusation was “bullshit.”
“You look like a Smurf here,” Comer said of Moskowitz, who was wearing a light blue suit and a white shirt.
With histrionics in Congress at a high and productivity at seemingly historic lows, it’s no wonder that so many House members are heading for the exits. Over the past week, more than half a dozen lawmakers announced that they wouldn’t be seeking reelection next year.
One member, Rep. Pat Fallon (R-Texas), even briefly considered leaving Congress to run for his old seat in the Texas Legislature — a technical demotion in U.S. politics, where lawmakers typically seek higher positions in public office.
Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), the fist-pumping senator who wrote a book about manhood, suggested that Congress may need to cool off and go on recess.
“Maybe it’s time for Thanksgiving,” he said.