‘Stand your butt up’ And Other Unusual Threats Heard In Congress Tuesday

Grace Panetta

Originally published by The 19th

The men of Congress are, by all appearances, not OK.

On Tuesday, weeks of simmering tensions in a chaotic Congress appeared to boil over. A House committee chair called his colleague a “smurf,” a former House speaker faced accusations of kidney punching and a senator threatened to fight a committee witness, saying of his conduct, “I’m still a guy.” The day in Congress that seemed more fitting for the 19th-century era of canings on the Senate floor than 2023.

Congress has been in session for weeks as the House went a historic 21 days without a speaker after a group of right-leaning lawmakers teamed up to depose Kevin McCarthy from that post. Now, new House Speaker Mike Johnson is under pressure to avert a government shutdown — and keep his caucus in line — without falling to the same fate as his predecessor. Notably, no Republican women sought to replace McCarthy as House speaker.

On Tuesday morning GOP House members held a closed-door meeting and afterward, in the hallway, NPR correspondent Claudia Grisales was interviewing one of them. Her subject, Rep. Tim Burchett of Tennessee, was one of the original group of eight House Republicans who led the charge to oust McCarthy.

But when McCarthy and his security detail walked by, a skirmish erupted.

“Have NEVER seen this on Capitol Hill,” began Grisales’ thread on X, the website formerly known as Twitter, recounting how McCarthy “shoved”  Burchett, prompting Burchett to “lunge” in her direction.

“I thought it was a joke, it was not. And a chase ensued,” she recounted. Grisales and her microphone followed along as Burchett pursued McCarthy down the hall. McCarthy denied elbowing Burchett, she reported, prompting Burchett to call the former speaker a “pathetic man” who pulled “a chicken move.”

In a subsequent interview with CNN’s Manu Raju on the steps of the House, Burchett said McCarthy landed a “clean shot to the kidneys,” calling the former speaker “a bully with $17 million and a security detail.”

“He’s the type of guy who when you were a kid, would throw a rock over the fence and run home and then hide behind his mama’s skirt,” Burchett said. “From behind, that kind of stuff, that’s not the way we handle things in East Tennessee. If I have a problem with somebody, I’m going to look them in the eye.”

Rep. Matt Gaetz, the Florida lawmaker who brought the motion to remove McCarthy as speaker, filed an ethics complaint over the incident. McCarthy, for his part, said that a real punch would have sent Burchett tumbling to the Capitol’s marble floors.

“If I hit somebody, they would know it,” he told reporters, per the AP’s Farnoush Amiri. “If I kidney punched someone, they would be on the ground.”

The brouhaha was, according to Burchett, the two men’s first communication since his vote to remove McCarthy.

On the other side of the Capitol, a brawl seemed on the verge of breaking out in a hearing of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions — a far cry from a fighting ring.

Republican Sen. Markwayne Mullin of Oklahoma, a champion wrestler and MMA fighter, has long been engaged in an in-person and online beef with Sean O’Brien, the general president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.

In a previous hearing, the men engaged in a heated back-and-forth where O’Brien called Mullin a “greedy CEO.” Then in June, O’Brien took to X to call Mullin a “clown and a fraud.”

“Quit the tough guy act in these senate hearings. You know where to find me. Anyplace, Anytime cowboy. #LittleManSyndrome,” he posted with a picture of Mullin standing on a riser at a debate. On Tuesday, Mullin decided to take O’Brien up on the offer.

“Sir, this is a time, this is a place,” Mullin said. “If you want to run your mouth, we can be two consenting adults, we can finish it here.”

“OK, that’s fine,” O’Brien responded, his deadpan tone accentuated by a Boston accent. “Perfect.”

“You want to do it now?” Mullin asked.

“I’d love to do it right now,” O’Brien said.

“Well, stand your butt up then,” Mullin challenged.

“You stand your butt up then, big guy,” O’Brien said.

Mullin rose from the dais and reached to take off his wedding band.

But before the men could descend into fisticuffs, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, the committee’s chair, decided he had seen enough.

“No, no, sit down!” an exasperated Sanders implored Mullin. “You’re a United States senator. Sit down, please!” He pleaded with Mullin to sit down.

“I don’t like thugs and bullies,” Mullin said.

“And I don’t like you, because you just described yourself,” O’Brien retorted.

The two men backed down from a committee room brawl but continued to spar verbally despite Sanders’ admonishments.

“I can’t understand him, to be honest with you,” O’Brien told Sanders. “He rambles so much.”

Bloomberg Law reporter Ian Kullgren on X called the episode, “The most insane thing I have seen on Capitol Hill.”

Later, when asked by reporters whether senators should be held to higher standards, Mullin responded: “I’m still a guy.”

The drama on the House side didn’t end with Burchett and McCarthy. For months, the House Committee on Oversight, led by GOP Rep. James Comer of Kentucky, has been pursuing an impeachment investigation of President Joe Biden, including the Biden family finances, that has lost steam in recent weeks. 

In an oversight hearing for the General Services Administration, Democratic Rep. Jared Moskowitz of Florida pressed Comer over news articles detailing Comer’s business deals with his own brother, which have included trading land back and forth and using LLCs.

Comer denied the reporting and lambasted Moskowitz and Rep. Dan Goldman, a former House impeachment counsel, whom Comer called “Mr. Trust Fund.” Moskowitz attempted to reclaim his time.

“I’m not going to give your time back,” an increasingly animated Comer said. “You look like a smurf here.”

Comer charged that Moskowitz was spreading “disinformation” and said he should go to Kentucky himself to see his farming operation.

“Mr. Chairman, this seems to have gotten under your skin here,” Moskowitz said.

Eventually, Democratic Rep. Kweisi Mfume of Maryland, the committee’s ranking member, put a stop to the back-and-forth.

“Mr. Chairman, I make a point of order that we should return to regular order,” Mfume said.

“The ranking member makes a good point,” Comer agreed.

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