by M.D. Kittle
As tempers flare in the Republican battle for Speaker of the House, the anti-establishment conservatives blocking Rep. Kevin McCarthy’s bid are being likened to pirates — and worse.
Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R-Texas), a McCarthy loyalist, called the Republican defectors terrorists. They’ve reportedly been described as the “Taliban 19.”
If this fiery rhetoric sounds familiar to Wisconsin politics watchers, it’s because it is.
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) used similar descriptors to define three state senators who fought against fat and for conservative reforms in the 2017-19 state biennial budget.
“Frankly, I wish Governor Walker had not negotiated with terrorists,” Vos said, referring to Sens. Chris Kapenga (R-Delafield), Steve Nass (R-Whitewater), and Duey Stroebel (R-Saukville). Vos later apologized for calling the lawmakers terrorists, but he continued to refer to them as “rogue holdouts.”
“As speaker, I have (striven) to increase the civility within the Legislature. I now regret using the word terrorist because it goes against the guidelines I’ve set for our chamber, and myself. For that, I apologize,” Vos said.
He took a lot of heat from then-Gov. Scott Walker and his fellow legislative Republicans. The men he called out didn’t like Vos’ intemperate language, either.
“It is beyond outrageous for anyone, especially a person serving as speaker of the Wisconsin state Assembly, to label as a ‘terrorist’ another person for simple public policy disagreements,” Nass, who served in the Wisconsin Air National Guard, said in a statement. “Worse yet, when given the opportunity in the interview to retract or recalibrate such a reprehensible statement, Speaker Vos firmly reiterated it.”
Vos didn’t like the lawmakers’ successful campaign to kill a hike in the state’s gas tax, and he was apoplectic about their deal with Walker to veto budget items that would have delayed Republicans’ prevailing wage reforms and given expanded powers to the controversial Public Finance Authority, among other compromises. The senators agreed to support the budget with Walker’s veto assurances.
The budget, passed and signed through a Republican majority, was delayed for months over intraparty disagreements.
Speaking with Mike Gousha of WISN-TV, Vos blasted the veto talks between the holdout senators and Walker.
“You’re calling them rogue senators and terrorists?” Gousha responded.
“That’s what they are!” Vos said.
Walker and a lot of his fellow Republicans disagreed. Kapenga, who today is Senate president, Nass and Stroebel, just had a different view on the budget and policies, their defenders argued.
The same case could be made for the House Republicans who, vote after vote, have rejected McCarthy’s rise to speaker. But Crenshaw and others have put their fellow Republicans on an enemies list.
“They are enemies now,” he told CNN’s Manu Raju. “They have made it clear that they prefer a Democrat agenda [over] a Republican one.”
The dissenters, including Reps. Andy Biggs of Arizona and Matt Gaetz of Florida, could never be confused with Democrats. They boast some of the most conservative voting records in congress.
But they are frustrating as hell to the majority of House Republicans who want to get on with the business of governing, and use their new majority power to stifle the liberal agenda of President Joe Biden and Senate Democrats.
“This is an all new level of contempt that the conference has for them. They are beyond redemption,” Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.), a McCarthy ally, told Politico.
“This is no longer about McCarthy. This is about what they are doing to the conference and the Republican Party,” added Rogers, who pledged to try to strip members who vote against McCarthy of their committee assignments.
Vos has done the same in the Assembly to those who have crossed him. Just ask state Rep. Janel Brandtjen (R-Menomonee Falls), who chaired the Campaign and Elections Commission charged with investigating the many irregularities surrounding Wisconsin’s 2020 election. Brandtjen was kicked out of the Assembly GOP caucus and stripped of her committee chair position after routinely butting heads with Vos.
In the House, McCarthy backers note the jibes from Democrats who, having just lost the majority, are chortling about the Republican dysfunction to begin this congress.
And many Republicans are understandably upset that not much can happen in the 118th congress until they get their leadership mess settled. First and foremost, they can’t hold Biden accountable.
“The Biden administration is going unchecked and there is no oversight of the White House, State Department, Department of Defense, or the intelligence community. We cannot let personal politics place the safety and security of the United States at risk,” the incoming chairs of several committees, including foreign affairs and armed services, said in a statement released on Thursday morning.
U.S. Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-WI 8th CD) told CNN he was denied entrance to a meeting with the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff because he has yet to obtain clearance.
But conservatives stepped in the Tea Party movement of a dozen years ago say some things are worth fighting for, and the battle against what they see as the status quo of swamp politics — whatever the party label — is high on that list.
“I’m running for Speaker to break the establishment,” Biggs said in a tweet on Dec. 6. “Kevin McCarthy was created by, elevated by, and maintained by the establishment.”
Does that make him a terrorist?
As Democrats pound their hyperbolic Jan. 6 narrative today and label every conservative an insurrectionist, Republicans don’t need any more help vilifying their own.
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M.D. Kittle is a senior reporter at Wisconsin Spotlight.