WASHINGTON — Outside the White House on Monday, the eve of the first hearing to investigate the Capitol riot, Rep. Kevin McCarthy had an insult and a threat for the two members of his party daring to participate in the inquiry into how and why a pro-Trump mob attacked the Capitol on Jan. 6.
He derided Reps. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, a staunch conservative and member of a storied Republican family, and Adam Kinzinger of Illinois, a six-term congressman and Air Force veteran, as “Pelosi Republicans,” referring to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who chose them to sit on the special panel investigating the assault. As the House minority leader, he suggested he might try to strip them of other committee assignments as punishment.
Around the same time, Pelosi made it clear that the pair would have prominent roles in the proceedings. Cheney would be cast in the spot traditionally played by the ranking member of a committee, afforded the chance to make an opening statement immediately after the chairman, Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss.
The divergent moves reflected the unusual place in which Cheney and Kinzinger find themselves as the investigation gets underway — ostracized by their own party and embraced by Democrats as the only Republicans willing to demand a full and bipartisan accounting for the worst attack on Congress in centuries.
It was only months ago that McCarthy himself said that former President Donald Trump “bears responsibility” for the mob violence; Sen. Mitch McConnell, the top Republican, warned that following Trump’s lies about a stolen election would lead democracy into a “death spiral”; and scores of Republicans called for an investigation of what had happened on Jan. 6.
But despite the injuries, blood and death of that day, which threatened to end the United States’ streak of peaceful transfers of presidential power, Republicans quickly fell into line behind Trump. Some denied or downplayed the violence, others embraced conspiracy theories about who was to blame and many simply pushed to stop talking about the riot.
Republican lawmakers who had once demanded answers voted against forming an independent bipartisan commission to investigate, with only 35 in the House supporting its creation. Even the 10 Republicans who voted to impeach Trump have mostly stayed silent.
Only Cheney and Kinzinger, who have continued to be vocal in denouncing the former president and the violence he inspired, supported the creation of the select committee. It is to hold its first hearing on Tuesday, when several police officers who battled the mob are scheduled to testify.
The situation reflects what many Republicans say is their political reality: They know supporters of Trump, believing his lie of a stolen election, committed the violence on Jan. 6, but they are also aware that dwelling on that could hurt their chances of retaking the House in the 2022 elections. So nearly all of them are endeavoring to talk about anything — immigration, rising inflation, spiking crime rates — other than the riot, which they say Democrats want to keep in the news as much as possible and in the minds of voters.
All, that is, except for Cheney and Kinzinger. They have gambled that their political future lies in trying to transform the party back to the one they say they knew growing up. In their telling, they want to return the Republican Party to an idealized version of the Bush or Reagan administrations emphasizing lower taxes, hawkish defense and social conservatism.
They have also cast themselves as the adults in the party.
Cheney, who was ousted from House leadership in May for criticizing Trump, responded to McCarthy’s insult on Monday by calling his behavior “pretty childish.”
“We’ve got very serious business here,” she said, before entering a committee room to prepare for Tuesday’s hearing. “We have important work to do.”
Kinzinger chastised those Republicans who have sought to downplay or deny the violence.
“For too long, we’ve been pretending that Jan. 6 didn’t happen,” Kinzinger told reporters. “Kevin McCarthy is technically my Republican leader. And to call members of Congress by childish names like Donald Trump used to do, I guess is just kind of par for the course.”
Democrats have taken the opportunity to highlight divisions in the Republican Party and to try to burnish the credibility of their investigation.
By granting Cheney a marquee speaking slot at the hearing, Democrats were ensuring that she would have a powerful platform to surface her concerns about the assault, lending bipartisan legitimacy to an inquiry that Republicans have worked to dismiss as a one-sided political attack.
McCarthy and his allies planned a counteroffensive, announcing a news conference 90 minutes before the hearing was to convene in which they were expected to criticize Pelosi for picking and choosing which Republicans could sit on the committee.
Republican leaders have boycotted the investigation and said they would begin their own after Pelosi refused to allow two of Trump’s most loyal allies in the House — who had supported the false claims of voter fraud that fueled the breach — to participate.
McCarthy forced a vote on the House floor on Monday to condemn Pelosi’s rejection of Reps. Jim Banks of Indiana and Jim Jordan of Ohio, and force her to seat them on the select committee. His resolution failed on a mostly party-line vote, with only Cheney and Kinzinger joining Democrats in opposition.
The pair’s participation at Tuesday’s hearing will make for a vivid contrast that captures the state of their party. While they defy their leaders to hear from police officers brutalized by Trump loyalists, a group of far-right Republicans planned to appear outside the Justice Department to side with the rioters.
Reps. Matt Gaetz of Florida, Louie Gohmert of Texas, Paul Gosar of Arizona and Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia said they were holding an event there Tuesday afternoon to denounce the treatment of “Jan. 6 prisoners.” They have portrayed those arrested as victims of an unfair system that has targeted and punished supporters of Trump for their political beliefs.
Cheney and Kinzinger now find themselves in the unusual position of being defended by Democrats.
Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., the House majority leader, called McCarthy’s insults “absurd.”
“These are people who come from conservative Republican districts who have represented Republican values,” Hoyer said Monday on MSNBC. “The difference is — and this is the key: They both believe in the truth.”This article originally appeared in The New York Times.