As a Government Shutdown Deadline Looms, Fights Erupt in Congress

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By Ketrin Agustine

As a Government Shutdown Deadline Looms, Fights Erupt in Congress

A number of skirmishes unfolded in Congress as tempers flared ahead of a government shutdown deadline and Thanksgiving holiday break.

The former G.O.P. speaker elbowed one of the Republicans who had voted to oust him. A Republican senator rose to challenge an organized labor leader to a brawl during a hearing. Across the Capitol, the chairman of a different panel compared a member of his committee to a cartoon character.

Tensions ran high on Capitol Hill on Tuesday, as the marbled corridors of Congress devolved into a backdrop for heated clashes — some of them physical — among lawmakers who are rushing to avoid a government shutdown at the end of the week and salvage their Thanksgiving vacation.

The fights were the latest display of unruliness from a branch of government that has spent much of the year wallowing in its own dysfunction, only snapping out of it for long enough to narrowly avert a federal debt default and a lapse in government funding. This week appeared to be one of those times — the House was expected on Tuesday afternoon to pass a temporary bill to stave off a shutdown at week’s end — but lawmakers were still behaving badly.

It began early Tuesday morning, when former Speaker Kevin McCarthy had a run-in with Representative Tim Burchett of Tennessee, one of the eight Republicans who had voted to oust him from the speakership last month, in the basement of the Capitol. Mr. Burchett said he had been speaking with journalists in a hallway following a party confab when Mr. McCarthy elbowed him in the back, then kept walking.

“It was just a cheap shot by a bully,” Mr. Burchett said later. “And then I chased after him. And we had a few words.”

A reporter who witnessed the incident posted an account on social media corroborating the story. But Mr. McCarthy denied there was an altercation, telling reporters he had merely been passing by Mr. Burchett in a narrow and crowded hallway.

Still, the vitriol of the exchange — Mr. Burchett ran after Mr. McCarthy calling him a “jerk,” a “chicken” and “pathetic” — reflects the hostility still simmering within the fractious Republican conference. The right-wing anger that led to Mr. McCarthy’s ouster continues to rage, while the former speaker and his mainstream allies remain livid that he was removed.

But the unraveling of decorum was not confined to the House. Across the Capitol complex at a hearing of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, Senator Markwayne Mullin, Republican of Oklahoma, challenged a top labor leader to a physical fight.

Mr. Mullin and Sean O’Brien, the president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, have been feuding on social media. Mr. Mullin read aloud one of Mr. O’Brien’s posts calling him a “clown” and a “fraud,” and challenging him to a confrontation “Anyplace, Anytime cowboy.”

“Sir, this is a time, this is a place,” Mr. Mullin said to Mr. O’Brien from the dais. “We can do it here.”

“OK, perfect,” Mr. O’Brien responded, adding, “I’d love to do it right now.”

“Well, stand your butt up then,” Mr. Mullin, a former mixed martial arts fighter, said, rising from his chair and reaching to remove his wedding ring in apparent preparation to throw a punch.

As the two men shouted at each other, Senator Bernie Sanders, independent of Vermont and the chairman of the panel, intervened and repeatedly told Mr. Mullin to return to his chair.

“You’re a United States senator! Sit down, please,” he said, wagging his finger as Mr. Mullin and Mr. O’Brien continued to talk over each other from across the hearing room. “Hold it!” Mr. Sanders yelled, banging his gavel.

The morning dust-ups carried into the afternoon, as Representatives James R. Comer, Republican of Kentucky, and Jared Moskowitz, Democrat of Florida, had an expletive-laden shouting match during a hearing of the Oversight Committee called to discuss the personal finances of President Biden’s son, Hunter Biden.

When Mr. Moskowitz pointed to reports of Mr. Comer’s own financial dealings with family members, Mr. Comer called the Florida Democrat, who was dressed in a blue suit and blue tie, a liar, adding, “You look like a Smurf.”

Some Capitol Hill veterans chalked up the silliness to fraying patience among lawmakers who have been asked to work without a break for several weeks in a row, an unusual phenomenon in Congress, where recesses are frequent.

“Today is another example of why Congress shouldn’t be in session for 5 weeks straight,” Doug Andres, the spokesman for Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the longtime minority leader, wrote on X. “Weird things happen.”

There are deeper reasons too.

In the weeks since Speaker Mike Johnson was elected to succeed Mr. McCarthy, a proclaimed moment of unity, the same Republican fissures that led to Mr. McCarthy’s ouster have erupted back into public view. The temporary spending bill Mr. Johnson is pushing, and that the House is set to consider, has none of the spending cuts or policy changes that hard-right Republicans had wanted.

By day’s end, Representative Matt Gaetz, the Florida Republican who forced the vote to depose Mr. McCarthy, had come out against the spending plan — and also filed an ethics complaint against the former speaker for the alleged assault on Mr. Burchett.

Flaring tempers were clearly on the new speaker’s mind during a news conference on Tuesday morning, when he told reporters, “This place is a pressure cooker.”

He said he hoped that quick passage of the spending measure followed by a week away from Washington would do his party good.

“This will allow everybody to go home for a couple of days for Thanksgiving,” he said. “Everybody can cool off.”

Kayla Guo contributed reporting.

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