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‘It’s only gotten worse’: The long shadow of the night that broke the House


The violent attack on the Capitol cost lives, threatened the transition of presidential power and forever changed the way Congress does its work. One year later, we at POLITICO are looking back at those changes and how Washington is moving forward.

Rep. Cheri Bustos still remembers her husband’s warning after she and her colleagues were trapped in the House chamber by violent rioters.

“‘It is not going to get better out there,’” the Illinois Democrat recalled her county sheriff spouse telling her. The following year proved him right, Bustos added: “It’s only gotten worse.”

Bustos is one of several retiring Democrats who told POLITICO that the insurrection, and the months of personal vitriol in the House that followed, propelled their decision not to seek reelection next November.

It started before the attack on the Capitol; some cross-aisle relationships began souring far earlier in Donald Trump’s term, while others started to fray amid the 2009 rise of the conservative Tea Party. But interviews with many House Democrats, from senior members to rank and file, point to Jan. 6 as the night that truly broke the House — perhaps for a generation.

And the biggest affront wasn’t the violence itself by the former president’s supporters, but the votes by more than 140 of their GOP colleagues against certifying Joe Biden as president, hours after rioters threatened them with that same goal. Those votes severely damaged trust among lawmakers. Without trust, it’s become harder to get just about anything done on the House floor.

Bills that once sailed through with bipartisan support, such as government funding or debt limit measures, got next to zero Republican support this year. The ultra-conservative Freedom Caucus has crippled the chamber’s ability to fast-track noncontroversial bills, forcing 30 floor votes in a row at one point last month. A bipartisan infrastructure bill that passed the Senate with Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s vote later led to death threats for the 13 House Republicans who backed it.

That legislative deadlock is due, in large part, to the radioactive personal toxicity in the House, animosity already intensifying during the pandemic that worsened after the riot. While Democrats are chilled by growing riot revisionism within the GOP, Republicans argue Democrats abused their powers in response to both Covid and Jan. 6, from hauling in metal detectors post-insurrection to slapping fines on those who refusing to wear a mask on the floor.

“Things really haven’t quite recovered after Jan. 6, and that’s a reality,” said Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.), who co-leads the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus. The centrist has faced threats to his own life from outside the Capitol this year.

“Anytime somebody gets attacked, the natural human instinct is to counter-punch, and then it just kind of devolves downward. There’s been more attacking, sometimes personal attacks,” Fitzpatrick said.

So far, 23 House Democrats have announced they’ll pass on a reelection bid this year as the party grapples with historically long odds to hold on to the chamber. It’s more than the wilderness of the minority driving those retirements, though: Rep. Stephanie Murphy (D-Fla.), who stunned the party by announcing her exit at age 43 after just three terms, made her choice in part because she is tired of the noxious House culture, according to people close to her. Murphy, a member of the House panel investigating Jan. 6, has also faced a barrage of threats.

Other Democrats privately worry the hostility will only worsen if Republicans take back power, unless leaders of both parties do more to lower the temperature.

The question on most Democrats’ minds: Is the House broken for good? Not all of them want to stick around and find out.

“I think that’s a huge factor. There are several more I know who are right now on the edge of trying to decide whether to go,” House Budget Chair John Yarmuth (D-Ky.), who will retire next year, said in an interview last month.

“It’s kind of tough to come out here and be serious when you’ve got” rising bitterness and death threats against colleagues, added Rep. Ron Kind (D-Wis.), who’s retiring after 24 years in office. “It’s sad, but it’s all too true.”

As proof of how badly the House floor environment has frayed, Democrats point to the final day of session in 2021. Conservative Rep. Scott Perry (R-Pa.) derailed floor debate on Islamophobia legislation when he falsely accused Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), the bill’s sponsor, of having ties to terrorist groups. The remarks were deemed a flagrant enough violation of decorum to be struck from the congressional record and to earn Perry a ban from speaking on the floor for the rest of the night.

The halls of Congress have rung with recriminations in the past, of course — from 1856, when pro-slavery Rep. Preston Brooks (D-S.C.) physically attacked anti-slavery Sen. Charles Sumner (R-Mass.), to the 2009 flap over Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) shouting “You lie” at then-President Barack Obama during the State of the Union address.

Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.) recalled his own much more minor brush call with the rules of decorum more than a decade ago, when he delivered a fiery floor speech about then-President George W. Bush’s handling of Iraq.

Welch admitted he’s forgotten his precise words, saying only that he “got overheated.” But instead of delivering a rebuke, the Republican leading debate that day, then-Illinois Rep. Ray LaHood, offered Welch a re-do “in a very gentle way.” And then the Democrat apologized.

Welch, who’s running for Senate, is one of roughly three dozen members of both parties who won’t return to the House in 2023. Another is Transportation Chair Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), who’s been plenty outspoken about what he sees as the erosion of regular order during his 34 years in office.

That includes the conservative backlash against the 13 GOP lawmakers who backed Biden’s infrastructure deal this year, which DeFazio lamented is “just nuts.” Asked if he believed any House Republican leader could cool the mood after the midterms, DeFazio responded: “No, I don’t see anybody on their side in leadership who is going to challenge that.”

“Unfortunately, they’re all infected, particularly the leadership over there, by Trump,” DeFazio said.

The decaying personal dynamic has begun to creep into the typically-cooperative area of appropriations, said Rep. David Price (D-N.C.), a senior spending leader who’s retiring next year after three decades in the House: “There is a corrosive effect underway, there’s no question about that.”

But Republicans argue that Democrats haven’t exactly sought to deescalate, either. They point to party leaders’ decisions to increase security in the chamber itself — with Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other Democrats alleging threats to Congress were “from within.”

“I’ve never seen it so bad when it comes to hyperpartisanship,” said Rep. Rodney Davis (R-Ill.), arguing that Democrats’ addition of metal detectors outside the chamber doors wasn’t warranted. He also pointed to several Democrats accusing GOP lawmakers of aiding the Jan. 6 rioters, despite zero evidence that any sitting members were involved.

Democrats investigating Jan. 6 are seeking information from several House Republicans about their communications with Trump and his allies, though none have been accused of abetting the rioters. Then there’s Democrats’ move to strip Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) and Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.) of committee spots for social media posts that portrayed or peddled violence toward colleagues across the aisle.

House Republicans in both the right and center wings of the conference decry the sanctions, with some warning of partisan tit-for-tat under a GOP majority in 2023. Democrats insist they were forced to take disciplinary action after House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy said he wouldn’t. Because in a year like 2021, they said, the possibility of violence stopped being hypothetical.

“That was a last straw for them,” Bustos, the retiring Illinoisan, said of her husband and three sons. “I wish I could say that Jan. 6 was a culmination of all this. But unfortunately, it continues to grow.”

Olivia Beavers and Ally Mutnick contributed to this report.

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