Less than a week after Rep. Liz Cheney was ousted from her leadership position for her opposition to Donald Trump’s lies about the 2020 election, House Republicans are mired in yet another fight over Trump — this time whether to move forward with a bipartisan commission to investigate the January 6 attack on the US Capitol.
On Tuesday morning, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy announced he would vote against a bill to establish a January 6 commission, despite giving his blessing to Rep. John Katko to negotiate with Democrats to craft a compromise deal. The House could vote on the bill as early as Wednesday.
In a closed-door conference meeting Tuesday morning, McCarthy argued against the deal Katko had negotiated on behalf of House Republicans, one that contains a number of concessions to GOP demands. Instead, McCarthy called for a broader probe that examines additional instances of political violence, including the 2017 Congressional baseball shooting that wounded Republican Rep. Steve Scalise, currently the No. 2 House Republican.
Speaking to reporters after the conference meeting, Katko denied any hard feelings toward McCarthy. But people with knowledge of their relationship tell CNN that the episode has caused a fracture between the two.
“Kevin is furious and Katko is furious. Katko has stuck his neck out. He is doing the right thing, and he is getting a lot of heat for it,” said one Republican familiar with the situation.
McCarthy’s opposition immediately sowed doubt about whether the bill would even make it to the Senate floor for a vote.
“It’s a little more uncertain, I would say now,” Senate Republican Whip John Thune said Tuesday.
The Problem Solvers Caucus, a group of 29 Democratic and 29 Republican House lawmakers who include Katko, said in a news release late Tuesday that the group endorses the bill.
McCarthy’s announcement Tuesday morning came as a surprise to many members, but sources tell CNN the GOP leader became increasingly worried about the scope of the probe over the weekend and finally decided that he would oppose the commission — even though he had instructed Katko to negotiate with Democrats in good faith.
According to a second Republican source, McCarthy may have been hoping negotiations between Katko and Rep. Bennie Thompson, the Democratic chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, would go nowhere. But the source said Thompson and the Democrats gave more concessions than Republicans had expected.
Another surprise came on Tuesday afternoon, when Scalise, the chief GOP whip, announced that leadership would recommend Republican members vote against the bill. That was just hours after Katko had told reporters he was pleased that leadership was advising Republican members to vote their consciences on the commission.
“Members are realizing that once again, at a moment of real national importance, Kevin McCarthy is putting his own personal and political interests above doing what’s right for the House GOP conference and the country,” said a second Republican source.
The sting was particularly acute because of how close Katko and McCarthy had been. Just in the past few days, Katko backed McCarthy’s pick for the No. 3 leadership spot, Rep. Elise Stefanik, and on Monday McCarthy endorsed Katko in his successful bid to replace Stefanik on the House GOP steering committee.
But the party remains split along the same lines that have plagued it all year: whether to embrace or reject the former President.
McCarthy’s attempt to negotiate that split and keep everyone pleased — from the far-right Freedom Caucus to the moderates like Katko — has started to alienate him from those members who he will rely on for support in a future bid for House speaker, according to multiple GOP sources.
“There is a lot of drama right now and Kevin is in a perilous position,” said a third Republican source. “Whether it’s the January 6th commission, or if the Justice Department comes calling, he has information about the rally, the insurrection and Trump’s words and state of mind.”
Democrats and even some Republicans have suggested that McCarthy should be a witness during any congressional investigation into the January 6 attack — particularly given the phone call he had with Trump on that day.
But it’s unclear how real a threat that is. Thanks to the deal Katko negotiated, the current bill gives McCarthy the power to appoint two of the five Republican members of the commission and, with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, the commission’s vice-chair. A majority of Republican appointees could block any effort to subpoena McCarthy.
Still, Republicans close to the situation tell CNN that despite that potential protection, McCarthy wants to do everything he can to stop a January 6 commission from getting off the ground — not only because of his potential exposure but also because it could hurt his chances of becoming speaker one day. Said one Republican with knowledge, “Kevin got too scared… and he can’t let it go anyplace.”
That’s a sentiment that current House Speaker Nancy Pelosi echoed in a statement on Tuesday.
“Leader McCarthy won’t take yes for an answer,” the Democrat said.
This story has been updated with further developments Tuesday.