My month of hell from inside the House Republican Thunderdome

Eric Garcia recounts too many hours in the Capitol basement, four votes for House speaker, a baby in George Santos’s arms and plenty of Celsius seltzer

Saturday 28 October 2023 15:12 BST
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From left: Jim Jordan, Matt Gaetz, Mike Johnson, Nancy Mace, Kevin McCarthy and George Santos
From left: Jim Jordan, Matt Gaetz, Mike Johnson, Nancy Mace, Kevin McCarthy and George Santos (Reuters/Getty/EPA/iStock)

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas

Editor

I should have known something would go down when Nancy Mace stopped to talk to me even though she was on the phone. It was 30 September and Kevin McCarthy had finally decided to wave the white flag to do what he should have done from the beginning – pass a clean continuing resolution (CR) with the help of Democrats to prevent a government shutdown.

But 90 Republicans voted against the stopgap bill, including Ms Mace, the mercurial South Carolina Republican with a flair for spectacle.

“A CR is what we always do to bulls*** the American people,” she fumed to me. Throughout her tenure, Ms Mace has perpetually said she would challenge House leadership only to eventually fall in line.

A further tea leaf should have been when Tennessee Republican Tim Burchett seemed utterly dejected, saying that the Republican leadership had “just cut a sweet enough deal or enough people would abdicate their duty”. Despite being an arch-conservative, Mr Burchett’s gentlemanly demeanour perfectly complements his southern-fried drawl. But when I asked him if Mr McCarthy would be deposed, he remained cryptic.

“You gotta find somebody to get enough votes,” he said. “That’s part of the problem.”

Little did I know what would follow: three weeks of long hours wherein the House Republican leadership would completely collapse at the hands of its most extreme members. The fracas culminated in the election of one of its extreme members as speaker of the House.

What follows is a diary to the best of my recollection inside the House Republican Thunderdome.

Round One: ‘Oh my God’

The Monday after the Congress narrowly avoided a government shutdown should have been a moment to let the temperature cool down after tensions rode high.

After a series of votes, Florida Republican Matt Gaetz, who earlier in the day had indicated his desire to file a motion to vacate, proved he wasn’t bluffing. Just off the floor, reporters and staffers watched as Mr Gaetz pulled the trigger. As members filed out, Florida Democrat Maxwell Frost, the Gen-Z congressman who just last week had told me Republicans “don’t have their s*** together”, couldn’t help but laugh and say, “Oh my God.”

Meanwhile, before the vote, Mr Burchett told reporters that he was torn “between voting against my friend Kevin McCarthy or voting my conscience”.

The next day I was supposed to be off. So I went to go get my hair cut and exercise instead of going to the Hill. But bafflingly, Mr McCarthy decided to call a vote for the motion to vacate despite the fact he had an extra 24 hours to bring it to the floor. It was there that Mr Burchett and Ms Mace joined Mr Gaetz and five other Republicans, along with every other Democrat present, to jettison Mr McCarthy.

Thus began what Bulwark editor-in-chief Charlie Sykes would dub “The GOP Goat Rodeo”, which would comprise mostly of days when I would arrive at the US Capitol at an ungodly early hour, pound a Celsius seltzer for an extra boost of energy and head over to the Longworth House Office Building or the basement of the Capitol.

Round 2: ‘I don’t think the Lord Jesus Himself could get 217’

Mr McCarthy’s downfall almost instantly triggered a contest between House majority leader Steve Scalise and House judiciary committee chair Jim Jordan. All the while, my friend Haley Talbot at CNN began regularly tweeting her spreadsheets showing whom members supported and who was “big mad” at the process.

The two men had nearly identical records, having both voted to object to the 2020 election results two years ago, as Mr McCarthy did. The difference was Mr Jordan had long been a darling of the right ever since the days he led the 2013 government shutdown. He also helped depose former House speaker John Boehner, who called him a “legislative terrorist”.

That made Mr Jordan the easy choice for arch-conservatives. But Mr Scalise, a hero of many Republicans after he had survived a shooting by a Bernie Sanders supporter in 2017 during a practice for the congressional baseball game, initially beat out Mr Jordan. But almost immediately, conservatives raised objections about the process. And Republicans couldn’t afford to ignore them, given they had only 221 members and needed 217 votes.

The recent attack by Hamas in Israel did not seem to give the GOP any sense of urgency to wrap up the fracas. On that Thursday, in the basement of the House, Republicans had a bull session that proved fruitless. Contrary to what people might think, reporting on Capitol Hill is decidedly not sexy, and reporting in a cramped corridor in the basement of the House is even less sexy and far more claustrophobic.

By the end of it, Rep Troy Nehls of Texas, who had concocted a cockamamie scheme to nominate Donald Trump, told me: “We’re dysfunctional, we're disorganised and we’re broken.”

“One of the members said in there, you know, I don’t think the Lord Jesus Himself could get 217,” he told me. Hours later, after I had already left the Hill, Mr Scalise had dropped out. Despite the fact Mr Scalise had won a majority of the vote, the same people who had tried to overturn the 2020 election results effective nullified his victory and neutered him.

Round 3: Who brought the baby?

Mr Scalise’s swift defenestration meant more Celsius and more waiting around in Longworth while searching for an outlet to salvage my ever-dying phone on Friday. The marble floors in Longworth don’t lend themselves to standing for long hours in dress shoes, and my heart goes out to my female colleagues who have to wear heels for their TV hits.

Meanwhile, as House Republicans went in for another day of meetings, they left their phones out so they couldn’t leak to the media.

At one point, New York Republican George Santos, the embattled serial fabulist from Long Island who had just been charged with stealing thousands of dollars from campaign contributors, emerged from the room. Shortly after, I followed him for what would later become a viral moment. As I asked him questions about Mr Jordan, who he had backed over Mr Scalise, all of a sudden, he ran into Shabd Singh, who police were already apprehending.

Previously, the two had had a confrontation when Mr Singh, who is Jewish, asked about Israel’s military bombing against Gaza. In response, Mr Santos started shouting that he was “human scum” for confronting him while holding a baby earlier in the day and continued to shout and flail. The next day, a friend from California DM’d me on Instagram and showed that I was in a video on TMZ following the disgraced lawmaker.

All the while, 55 people inside the conference room had voted against Mr Jordan and, baffingly, he allowed for a secret ballot instead of calling the role, a decision that would seal his fate as his zealous followers would badger and bully and threaten his conference members.

Round four: Scuttled drafts, F-bombs and cancelled plans

By Monday evening, I was almost certain that Mr Jordan would get the gavel. He had started winning over holdouts. But even though I knew Mr Jordan was a wholesale threat to democracy who played a key role in Mr Trump’s scheme to overturn the election, part of me also wanted the House GOP to put me out of my misery and get on with this.

Last week, it looked like Mr Jordan, a former college wrestler, might tap out and would allow for Republicans to vote to empower Patrick McHenry to move legislation, given another government shutdown is looming. But as soon as I got back to my desk in the House press gallery, the deal summarily died.

On Thursday evening, I got a notification that Mr Jordan would be giving a press conference at 8am on Friday. As a result, I got over to the Hill where Mr Jordan gave his best Jordan Belfort impersonation, telling people he would go into the weekend to get votes. (That worried me since I had dinner reservations at a restaurant I wanted to try that evening).

When I asked Mr Jordan what it said that he couldn’t get the votes given Israel was on fire, he said only it stressed the urgency of him becoming speaker. Not the urgency of getting a speaker, but making sure he could become speaker.

After flaming out and actually losing votes from members on the floor, I filed my story as I saw a cart of District Taco, a subpar Mexican joint (but about as serviceable as you can get in DC) as the GOP began to huddle in the basement again. I prepared to give a Zoom talk about my night job as an author of a book on autism for a friend’s book club. But just as I was about to start, I had to cancel since the House GOP had voted 86 to 112 to dump Mr Jordan, which told me that many of the people who voted for him felt they had to but didn’t want to do so.

But I did make my reservation.

Round Five: The Five Families coalesce

Alas, once again, it would be back to Longworth on Monday evening for a nine-man battle royale. On my way in, I caught Pennsylvania Republican Dan Meuser, who was running for speaker, in the elevator and talked with him briefly as he walked into the room. He did not respond to reports when others asked him if he was dropping out before he took himself out in the room.

By Tuesday morning, again in Longworth, it looked like an eight-man match with candidates of varying degrees of seriousness.

Then others fell off before, ultimately, House majority whip Tom Emmer won before he shortly and swiftly received a backlash. I caught Indiana Republican Jim Banks, an archconservative who had run against Mr Emmer for whip last year, in the basement of Longworth. “I could have voted for any of the others who put themselves up today on the floor, but I can’t vote for someone who doesn’t have a conservative track record,” he told me.

Mr Emmer’s ultimate sin? Not voting to overturn the 2020 election, which caused Mr Trump to come out against him.

Shortly thereafter, I got to my desk and wrote about how he faced an uphill battle to become speaker. Not two minutes after I filed, I caught my friend Victoria Knight from Axios in the Senate press gallery as she told me Emmer had dropped out. All the while, the mural in the House that shows a speaker did not have a new face as it had previously shown Mr McCarthy’s.

“F***,” I whisper-shouted, which raised some eyebrows, and worked to rewrite the piece.

Ultimately, after I filed, I went home as the GOP reconvened in Longworth to nominate Mike Johnson as speaker. The next day, the conference was all smiles. But everyone in the Washington press corps was done with a capital (or should I say Capitol) “D”.

All of this culminated in the Five Families of the GOP (no, really, they named themselves after the Mafia families) coalescing around Mr Johnson. From the gallery, I caught Rep Mike Lawler, the New York Republican who had opposed Mr Jordan, chatting with Marjorie Taylor Greene, and he effusively praised Mr Johnson.

An hour later, Mr Johnson got the gavel.

The House now has a speaker, and they’ve chosen a hard-right social conservative who has said he wants to reduce the number of abortions to zero. Someone who led the charge to overturn the election.

Throughout this entire venture in cat-herding, one phrase continued to echo with me: These are not serious people. For all their preening about spending bills or principled stances, the chaos on Capitol Hill served absolutely no purpose. Moreover, it culminated in the most radical voices in the GOP taking over the people’s house little more than two-and-a-half years after they had tried to stage a coup.

The mockery they made out of the halls of Congress for their own personal gain deserves our contempt. The day of Mr Emmer’s downfall, I ran into a woman from Israel who had survived the deadly attack, and conversely, ran into pro-Palestinian activists from Philadelphia. The world is on fire and the House only cared about moving the deckchairs. Meanwhile, advocates for Ukraine hoped to lobby for money, but there is no legislation to be passed. Did I mention the government shuts down next month?

At some point, we as reporters have to do our duties and tell our readers that this is what they vote for when they choose Republicans. They may think they are voting to keep Democrats in check, to hold Joe Biden accountable, to cut taxes or reduce inflation. The Democratic Party has its faults, to be sure. But in truth, they are voting to turn the House into a zoo and for people who would rather scorch the earth than share a playground.

Again, these are not serious people. And I will spend the rest of my time on the Hill not treating them as such. As Democratic Rep Becca Balint told me, the House GOP had an “an open sucking chest wound” and Mr McCarthy only served as a bandaid. But common threads of Maga-ism and election denialism sutured the conference back up into a new mutant spawn.

But for now, I need a nap and something to calm my nerves down after all the twitchiness from the Celsius.

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