WASHINGTON — The top House Republican refused Wednesday to punish Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene for spreading false and bigoted conspiracy theories and endorsing political violence against Democrats, condemning the Georgia freshman’s previous comments but declining to take away her posts on influential congressional committees.
After days of public silence and private agonizing over what to do about Greene — who has endorsed the executions of top Democrats, suggested that school shootings were staged and said that a space laser controlled by Jewish financiers started a wildfire — the minority leader, Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California, issued a tortured statement that harshly denounced her past statements, but then argued that she should face no consequences for them.
“Past comments from and endorsed by Marjorie Taylor Greene on school shootings, political violence, and anti-Semitic conspiracy theories do not represent the values or beliefs of the House Republican Conference,” McCarthy said. “I condemn those comments unequivocally. I condemned them in the past. I continue to condemn them today.”
But in the same statement, released hours after Democrats announced they would force a House vote Thursday on removing Greene from her committees, McCarthy made clear that his party would not take any action against her, and he portrayed Democrats’ push to do so as a “partisan power grab.”
The contortions over what to do about Greene came days after Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the minority leader and most powerful Republican in Washington, sharply denounced the Georgia freshman as a threat to his party and as more senators followed his lead.
“She’s not going to be the face of the party,” Sen. Rick Scott of Florida, the chairperson of Senate Republicans’ campaign arm, said of Greene. Scott, who was governor in 2018 when a gunman killed 17 people at a high school in Parkland, Florida, said her effort to portray the shooting as faked was “disgusting.”
“It’s beyond reprehensible for any elected official, especially a member of Congress, to parrot violent QAnon rhetoric and promote deranged conspiracies,” Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., wrote on Twitter. “It’s not conservative, it’s insane.”
The divergent reactions from House and Senate Republicans illustrated the extraordinary turmoil in the party as it struggles to define itself without President Donald Trump in the White House.
The feuding played out behind closed doors well into Wednesday evening, as House Republicans met to debate whether to strip Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, the No. 3 House Republican, of her leadership post, a penalty some Trump loyalists were demanding as punishment for her vote to impeach Trump.
Cheney ultimately emerged victorious, swatting down the challenge from the right flank of her conference in a stunning 145-61 secret ballot vote late Wednesday.
In the hourslong, often-heated meeting, according to people familiar with the discussion, McCarthy stood by both Cheney and Greene, and stressed the importance of presenting a united front.
He defended Cheney, telling lawmakers that he wanted their leadership team to “stay together,” and that she had a right to vote her conscience. He also warned that if they indulged the effort to strip Greene of her committee assignments, Democrats could try to target other Republicans, according to three people familiar with his comments, who insisted on anonymity to divulge the private exchange.
Greene offered a modicum of contrition in a brief speech, according to two people familiar with the remarks, and received applause from some lawmakers. She apologized for espousing a number of conspiracy theories and emphasized that she no longer believed in them. She sidestepped the issue of a Facebook post she made in 2018, unearthed by Media Matters for America, suggesting that a devastating wildfire that ravaged California was started by “a laser” beamed from space and controlled by a prominent Jewish banking family with connections to powerful Democrats.
During the same meeting, lawmakers lined up to air their grievances against Cheney, whom several members of the ultraconservative Freedom Caucus accused of “aiding the enemy” in voting to impeach Trump, the people said. But Cheney refused to apologize, and called for a vote on whether she should maintain her leadership post, effectively daring Republicans to topple her while allowing Greene to go unpunished.
The small group of Republicans who joined Cheney in voting to impeach Trump voiced their support for her — and some offered barely veiled criticism of McCarthy’s handling of the party’s dual crises.
“I think leaders have a responsibility to lead, and we’ll see if they do,” Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler of Washington said in response to a question about whether McCarthy should be defending Cheney. “I’m focused on making sure the elected leaders lead.”
The fate of Cheney, said Herrera Beutler, was only a proxy for the larger issue looming over the Republican Party: its obeisance to Trump.
“This is about the direction of our party and whether or not we’re going to be a minority dedicated to just one person or a united Republican majority,” she said.
Hours before the caucus meeting, a number of other Republican women were even more explicit during an at-times emotional virtual fundraiser for Cheney, according to two Republicans who participated.
Most outspoken was former Rep. Barbara Comstock of Virginia, a longtime party official who was swept out of her suburban Washington seat in the 2018 backlash to Trump. On the video call, Comstock belittled Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida — who went to Wyoming last week to rail against Cheney — describing him as “a joke.”
In a telephone interview, Comstock warned that exiling Cheney would send a “horrendous message” and “lead to further hemorrhaging in the suburbs.”
For now, the immediate problem facing House Republicans was how they would vote Thursday on Democrats’ resolution to strip Greene of her committees.
With Democrats in control of the House, the measure is certain to pass. But the vote will force Republicans to go on the record for the first time on whether Greene should be punished for her past comments, and will force them to confront head-on the conspiracy theories that Trump allowed to flourish, and in some cases fed, while he was in the White House. Trump often winked at such theories, like stating that QAnon adherents “love our country.” But Greene has been more explicit in her embrace of them, and in her endorsement of violence against Democrats.
McCarthy had tried to shield his members from taking such a vote, and spoke with Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland, the No. 2 House Democrat, by phone Wednesday to try to strike a compromise. McCarthy later told reporters that he had offered to remove Greene from the Education and Budget Committees and to put her on a panel overseeing small businesses instead. Hoyer declined the offer, he said, insisting that Greene should not sit on any committees.
Lawmakers will vote on a resolution Thursday removing Greene from her committees, citing simply the “conduct she has exhibited.” While expelling a lawmaker from the chamber requires a two-thirds vote, censuring or stripping one of committee assignments requires a simple majority, according to House rules.
Some Republicans are now arguing that voting in favor of the resolution would set a dangerous precedent because it would effectively allow the majority party to dictate which lawmakers in the minority party are fit to serve on committees, a crucial pipeline for members to advance legislation. Committee assignments have traditionally been the prerogative of the party leaders.
Others argue that members of Congress should not face punishment for remarks they made before they were elected. But Democrats said they were comfortable establishing a new set of rules whereby statements like those Greene made would prompt banishment from committees.
“A member of this House is calling for assassinations — that’s the new precedent,” said Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., the chairperson of the Rules Committee. “If that’s the standard that we remove people from committees, I’m fine with that.”
Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma, the top Republican on the Rules panel, did not try to excuse Greene’s comments, calling them “deeply offensive,” “repugnant” and “unbecoming of any member of Congress.” But he argued that the matter should be punted to the Ethics Committee for a bipartisan group of lawmakers to review.
“I do worry a lot about the precedent of another party choosing” to strip committee assignments, Cole said.
The tumult around Greene appears to have bolstered the political fortunes of Cheney, who expected to be at the center of the Republican conference’s internal drama this week. Instead, much of the strife has centered on the Georgia freshman, and establishment Republicans have rallied to Cheney’s side, arguing that it would send a catastrophic message for the party if the lawmakers were to punish Cheney for voting her conscience and defying Trump but not Greene for endorsing hateful speech, misinformation and violence.
But the attention Greene is receiving has been a political boon for her, as well. Seizing on the attempts to boot her off her committees, Greene has started a fundraising campaign claiming that Democrats are unfairly targeting her for her beliefs. She said the effort had netted her more than $160,000 in one day.