It was either a sucker punch or an accidental bump in a crowded hallway — but to members and congressional observers alike, an incident between former Speaker Kevin McCarthy and Tennessee Republican Rep. Tim Burchett was evidence of simmering tensions in a divided Congress that has been in session for weeks without a break.
And it wasn’t the only near-fight on the Hill on Tuesday.
McCarthy has had harsh words for Burchett and the seven other Republicans who in October voted with Democrats to oust him from the speakership. But on Tuesday he allegedly resorted to throwing elbows in a bizarre encounter with Burchett following a GOP conference meeting.
“I was doing an interview with Claudia from NPR … she was asking me a question 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 Kevin,” Burchett told CNN, referring to NPR reporter Claudia Grisales, who was interviewing the lawmaker at the time of the encounter.
“I chased after him … as I’ve stated many times, he’s a bully with $17 million and a security detail,” Burchett continued. “He’s the type of guy that when you were a kid would throw a rock over the fence and ride home and hide behind his mama’s skirt.”
McCarthy denied any intentional contact with Burchett, though Burchett’s account matches one Grisales posted on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter.
“You just don’t expect a guy who was at one time three steps away from the White House to hit you with a sucker punch in the hallway,” Burchett continued.
“I did not kidney punch him,” McCarthy fired back, speaking to reporters Tuesday afternoon. “If I were to hit somebody, they would know I hit them.”
While Burchett said he didn’t plan on filing an ethics complaint against McCarthy, Rep. Matt Gaetz announced that he would. The Florida Republican has long feuded with McCarthy, and on Tuesday accused him of assaulting his House colleague.
The House has been in session for 10 weeks without a break, as Republicans argued over the speaker ouster and competing plans to fund the government. New Speaker Mike Johnson summed up some of that frustration at a press conference Tuesday morning.
“This place is a pressure cooker. Everybody can go home, we can come back, reset,” Johnson said. “This will allow everybody to go home for a couple days for Thanksgiving, everybody to cool off.”
Meanwhile, across the Capitol on the Senate side, more tempers were flaring. Rekindling an old spat, Oklahoma Republican Sen. Markwayne Mullin threatened to fight Teamsters President Sean M. O’Brien in the middle of a hearing.
The pair first exchanged words in March at an earlier hearing on union issues, at which Mullin told O’Brien “to shut your mouth.”
O’Brien responded on X with a picture of Mullin — a former professional mixed martial arts fighter with an unbeaten record — and a message: “Greedy CEO who pretends like he’s self made. In reality, just a clown & fraud. Always has been, always will be. Quit the tough guy act in these senate hearings. You know where to find me. Anyplace, Anytime cowboy. #LittleManSyndrome.”
On Tuesday, O’Brien was back before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, and the two men picked up where they left off with a cringe-y round of smack talk.
“Sir, this is a time, this is a place. You want to run your mouth — we can be two consenting adults, we can finish it here,” Mullin said, calling back to O’Brien’s post.
“Okay that’s fine. Perfect,” O’Brien said.
“You want to do it now?” Mullin said.
“I’d love to do it right now,” O’Brien said.
“Well stand your butt up then,” Mullin said.
“You stand your butt up, big guy,” O’Brien said, as Mullin stood and made a motion to remove his wedding band before committee Chair Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., intervened.
Tension is not uncommon in an increasingly partisan Congress, but actual violence has been rare for more than a century.
In the pre-Civil War years between 1830 and 1860, more than 70 incidents of “manly violence” erupted, according to a recent book by historian Joanne B. Freeman. Many of those sprung from disagreements over slavery. In one of the most infamous and bloody examples, Sen. Charles Sumner, an antislavery Republican from Massachusetts, was caned by a South Carolina Democrat named Preston Brooks on the Senate floor.
But more recent skirmishes have ended before any blood was spilled.
The late Alaska Republican Don Young allegedly once held a 10-inch knife to the throat of Speaker John Boehner, while then-Appropriations Chair David Obey and California Democratic Rep. Maxine Waters had a tense encounter on the House floor in 2009. Both disputes involved earmarks.
Other incidents have involved shouting, name calling or empty threats.
While still a member of the House, Mullin took to Twitter in 2018 to challenge disgraced lawyer and Trump antagonist Michael Avenatti to a fight after Avenatti challenged Donald Trump Jr.
In 2020, former Florida Republican Ted Yoho allegedly called New York Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez a “f—–g b—h” on the House steps. And in January of this year, as attempts to choose a speaker dragged on for more than a dozen ballots, Alabama Republican Rep. Mike Rogers lunged at Gaetz, who was part of a group that tried to scuttle McCarthy’s ambitions for the speakership.
The name-calling continued Tuesday, as a House Oversight hearing devolved into a shouting match when Rep. Jared Moskowitz raised questions about the business dealings of Chair James Comer.
“You look like a smurf,” said Comer, a Kentucky Republican.
Moskowitz, a Florida Democrat known for his brightly colored suits, was wearing a baby blue jacket and tie.
Senate Minority Whip John Thune wasn’t involved in any of the sparring Tuesday, but he acknowledged that tensions were running high on the Hill. “We’re living in fairly polarized times. There’s a lot going on here and all around the world. And that spills over into some of the work that we do around here,” the South Dakota Republican said.
Missouri Republican Sen. Josh Hawley summed up the mood, telling reporters, “I will say it seems like things are maybe a little tense.”
He had a suggestion: “Maybe it’s time for Thanksgiving.”
David Lerman, Niels Lesniewski and Valerie Yurk contributed to this report.