A US radio reporter witnessed a remarkable altercation at the US Capitol on Tuesday, between Tim Burchett of Tennessee and Kevin McCarthy of California, the Republican speaker eight rightwingers including Burchett ejected from the role last month.
Claudia Grisales, of NPR, said: “Have NEVER seen this on Capitol Hill: while talking to Tim Burchett after the GOP conference meeting, former speaker McCarthy walked by with his detail and McCarthy shoved Burchett. Burchett lunged towards me. I thought it was a joke, it was not. And a chase ensued.”
According to Grisales, Burchett yelled, “Why’d you elbow me in the back, Kevin?! Hey Kevin, you got any guts!?” and called McCarthy a “jerk”.
Grisales said: “I chased behind with my mic.”
McCarthy, she said, told Burchett: “I didn’t elbow you in the back.”
Burchett said: “You got no guts, you did so … the reporter said it right there, what kind of chicken move is that? You’re pathetic, man.”
Telling Grisales he was “stunned”, Burchett said the clash was his first communication with McCarthy since he helped make him the first speaker ever removed by his own party.
Last week, McCarthy told CNN Burchett’s vote to remove him was “out of nature” and accused him and his fellow rebels of “car[ing] a lot about press, not about policy, and so they seem to just want the press and the personality”.
Burchett said then McCarthy was “bitter”.
McCarthy has flirted with or reportedly indulged in physical confrontations before. In January, as rightwingers forced him through 15 votes to become speaker, he confronted Matt Gaetz of Florida on the House floor. Mike Rogers of Alabama, a McCarthy ally, had to be restrained. Gaetz eventually became the ringleader of McCarthy’s removal.
In a new memoir, meanwhile, the retired anti-Trump Republican Adam Kinzinger, from Illinois, details two times he says McCarthy shoved him.
Kinzinger says McCarthy “tried to intimidate me physically. Once, I was standing in the aisle that runs from the floor to the back of the [House] chamber. As he passed, with his security man and some of his boys, he veered towards me, hit me with his shoulder and then kept going.
“If we had been in high school, I would have dropped my books, papers would have been scattered and I would have had to endure the snickers of passersby. I was startled but took it as the kind of thing Kevin did when he liked you.
“Another time, I was standing at the rail that curves around the back of the last row of seats in the chamber. As he shoulder-checked me again, I thought to myself, ‘What a child.’”
On Tuesday, McCarthy denied attacking Burchett. “I guess our shoulders hit or something,” he told reporters. “I didn’t know what he was talking about.”
Burchett spoke to CNN.
“I was doing an interview with Claudia from NPR, a lovely lady,” he said. “And … at that time I got elbowed in the back. And it kind of caught me off guard because it was a clean shot to the kidneys. And I turned back and there was there was Kevin, and … it just happened and then I chased after him.
“Of course, as I’ve stated many times, he’s a bully with $17m in a security detail, and he’s the type of guy that when you’re a kid would throw a rock over the fence and run home and hide behind his mama’s skirt.
“He hit me from behind … that’s not the way we handle things in east Tennessee. We have a problem, somebody’s gonna look him in the eye.”
Being hit in the kidneys, Burchett said, was “a little different. You don’t have to hit very hard to cause a little bit of pain, a lot of pain. And so he … just denies it or blames somebody else or something. But I just backed off because … I wasn’t gaining anything from it, if everybody saw it.”
McCarthy said, “I did not run and hit the guy … I did not kidney punch him” and “If I hit somebody, they would know I hit them”. He disputed the claim he had caused Burchett pain.
Burchett said the incident was “symptomatic of the problems that [McCarthy’s] had in his short tenure as speaker” but said he would not file an ethics complaint.
Later, Gaetz said he had asked the ethics committee to step in.
“This Congress has seen a substantial increase in breaches of decorum unlike anything we have seen since the pre-civil war era,” Gaetz said.
Also on Tuesday, elsewhere on Capitol Hill, the Republican Oklahoma senator Markwayne Mullin squared up to a Teamsters union boss during a committee hearing.
No such moments have reached the level of those seen in the 1840s and 50s, when most famously Preston Brooks, a congressman from South Carolina, used his cane to thrash almost to death Charles Sumner, an anti-slavery senator from Massachusetts.
But Gaetz’s own ethics committee troubles have been widely seen as a source of enmity between him and McCarthy, who on Tuesday told reporters: “I think ethics is a good place for Gaetz to be.”
Gaetz ploughed on.
“The rot starts at the top,” he said, adding: “I request the House committee on ethics to proceed immediately with an investigation into the facts of today’s incident, including interviewing, under oath, the alleged assailant and assailee, and any witnesses.”