Republicans in Congress face internal backlash over dueling floor disasters

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Chaos has been a common theme for the 118th Congress.

But this week, lawmakers took the drama to new heights, as Republicans in both chambers sank two top GOP priorities – impeaching Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas and securing the southern border – serving up a double dose of dysfunction in the nation’s capital.

“I had many people reach out to me via text message and say, ‘What the hell are you guys doing up there?’ I think our base is a little frustrated,” GOP Rep. Troy Nehls of Texas told CNN. “We may have the gavel, but we’re not acting like we’re in the majority.”

In the House, Tuesday’s embarrassing defeat of the Mayorkas impeachment effort – which was quickly followed by another floor failure over a standalone Israel aid package – only crystalized the GOP’s yearlong struggle to govern amid a rambunctious and anemic majority. In the wake of the fallout, Republican lawmakers are openly airing their frustrations and pointing fingers as to who is to blame, with some questioning their own leadership’s decision-making.

“I was embarrassed for our conference, for our party, because we can do better than we did last night,” said GOP Rep. Lance Gooden of Texas.

And the disarray was not isolated to the House, as the Senate GOP tanked a bipartisan border security deal on Wednesday crafted by some of its own members, sparking a bitter internal divide in the Republican conference.

“I have a difficult time understanding again how anyone else in the future is going to want to be on that negotiating team - on anything - if we are going to be against it,” said GOP Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, who was one of just four Republicans who voted to advance the border security deal that ultimately failed on Wednesday.

She added: “I’ve gone through the multiple stages of grief. Today I’m just pissed off.”

In the House, the pair of stunning floor defeats was so painful that it even had many Republicans heaping rare praise on former Speaker Nancy Pelosi and House Democrats for their vote counting skills, and pining after disgraced former GOP Rep. George Santos, who was expelled, but at least cushioned their majority.

“As bad as Pelosi was, she knew her votes before they took place,” said Rep. Ralph Norman of South Carolina, a member of the ultra conservative House Freedom Caucus.

The meltdown – just the latest in a long string of chaotic moments under this GOP majority – is raising fresh concerns over how Republicans will navigate the fast approaching government funding deadline, and their ability to maintain control of the House after November.

“It was a lousy day. Two bad play calls back to back. Both active choices to schedule them. It was a huge mistake,” said GOP Rep. Patrick McHenry of North Carolina, an ally to former Speaker Kevin McCarthy. “The speaker is a very nice man,” he said of Speaker Mike Johnson, but added, “He’s gotta learn from his mistakes.”

Added GOP Rep. Jen Kiggans, who represents a key Virginia swing seat: “It’s frustrating for people like me who ran for Congress as a military veteran, as a Navy spouse, as a Navy mom.”

For his part, Johnson acknowledged the difficulty of the situation. But he argued it just comes with the responsibility of governing. Johnson defended his rookie speakership, and has vowed to bring the impeachment articles back up again when they have fewer absences on their side.

“Well, look, it was a mess what happened here but we’re cleaning it up,” Johnson said. “I don’t take this as a reflection on the leader. It’s a reflection on the body itself and the place where we come in this country.”

Across the Capitol, the ink had barely dried on the bipartisan deal Senate Republicans helped negotiate to address the southern border, the most conservative legislative response to immigration formulated in decades, before their own Republican colleagues flatly rejected it – partly at the behest of former President Donald Trump. The swift rebuke has left Republicans scrambling over their message on the border and raised fresh questions over Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s future.

It all amounts to a spectacular display of legislative failures across both chambers – even by the already low standards of this Congress, one of the most unproductive in recent history.

“I understand we have differences, but we have got to sit down together, figure out how we are going to solve problems because the American people sent us here to do that,” said GOP Sen. James Lankford of Oklahoma, the top GOP negotiator on the border deal.

Holding up a black pen he received when he became a US senator, he added, “There is no reason for me to have this pen if we’re just going to do press conferences. I can do press conferences from anywhere.”

Speaker of the House Mike Johnson departs from a House Republican caucus meeting at the US Capitol on February 6, in Washington, DC. - Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images
Speaker of the House Mike Johnson departs from a House Republican caucus meeting at the US Capitol on February 6, in Washington, DC. - Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images

Lawmakers question Johnson’s decision-making

Heading into a high-stakes vote to impeach Mayorkas, Johnson knew he had three Republican defections on his hands, but was banking on Democratic absences to help carry the measure over the finish line.

Meanwhile, Johnson was well aware that a standalone Israel aid package was destined for failure, but decided to put it on the floor anyway, in hopes the defeat would showcase Democratic divisions over what has been a hot-button issue in their party.

But his bet did not pay off.

As Johnson presided over the chamber, the impeachment effort went down in flames after a House Democrat unexpectedly showed up at the last minute to cast his vote, changing the margins and sinking the resolution. And the stunning defeat, which prompted a chaotic scene on the House floor, completely overshadowed the Democratic opposition to the Israel bill.

The floor defeat of the Mayorkas impeachment effort, a longtime GOP priority, had many Republicans scratching their heads.

GOP Rep. Mike Gallagher of Wisconsin, one of the three Republicans to vote against impeaching Mayorkas, said Wednesday he had made his position known for a while, and criticized House GOP leadership for putting the consequential vote on the floor without knowing for certain if it would pass.

“I was not undecided. I whipped ‘no’ for over a month. So, nobody was surprised about my vote,” Gallagher told radio host Hugh Hewitt. “It is unclear why we barreled ahead with a vote knowing that the votes weren’t there.”

Tuesday’s twin failures created a new opening for members to go after their own party leaders, though no one is seriously talking about trying to boot Johnson from the job.

“(Johnson’s) gotta start making good judgements,” said Rep. Dan Bishop of North Carolina. “He’s very much up to the task. He (had) better start acting like it.”

Rep. Steve Womack, an Arkansas Republican and longtime lawmaker, warned that leadership needs to do a better job of counting votes.

“We need to know exactly where we are and we need to be careful not to get out ahead of our skis and put something on the floor that we don’t have certainty on,” Womack said.

Another GOP lawmaker, granted anonymity to speak freely, called Tuesday “a massive failure” and said, “the majority leader schedules, the whip counts, but the speaker is the one who calls the shots at the end of the day.”

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell returns to his office in the US Capitol following a procedural vote on February 7, 2024 in Washington, DC. - Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell returns to his office in the US Capitol following a procedural vote on February 7, 2024 in Washington, DC. - Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

‘These are setbacks, but they’re not defeats’

While members went after Johnson, who has been at the helm for just over 100 days, they said he still deserves a grace period and acknowledged the party could not afford another tumultuous speaker fight.

Defenders of the current GOP leadership team framed the failed impeachment vote as  temporary because they said Republicans will bring it up again once Majority Leader Steve Scalise returns from receiving cancer treatments. Plus, Tuesday’s vote put the detractors on the record.

“They wanted to nail everybody down and they did,” said veteran Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma, a member of the GOP leadership team. “Frustration is built into the system here … Look, I think these are setbacks, but they’re not defeats.”

Others in the GOP blamed Democrats, and accused them of purposely keeping their attendance numbers secret. Democratic Rep. Al Green of Texas, who was in the hospital recovering from a major surgery, was wheeled in at the 11th hour so he could cast a deciding vote against impeachment.

“The Democrats played hide and seek with us,” GOP Rep. Carlos Gimenez of Florida told CNN. “It’s not going to matter when Scalise gets back and we have a clear majority then. We’ll put it back up.”

For their part, Democrats took a victory lap in their maneuvering that led to a nail-biter vote and embarrassment for House Republicans.

“You never bring a bill to the Floor unless you have the votes,” Pelosi, known for her sharp vote counting ability, said in a statement to CNN. “And in order to know you have the votes, you have to know how to count.”

CNN’s Haley Talbot, Lauren Fox and Sam Fossum contributed to this report.

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