WASHINGTON — Outside the White House on Monday, the eve of the first hearing to investigate the Capitol riot, Representative Kevin McCarthy had an insult and a threat for the two members of his party daring to participate in the inquiry into how and why a pro-Trump mob attacked the Capitol on Jan. 6.
He derided Representatives Liz Cheney of Wyoming, a staunch conservative and member of a storied Republican family, and Adam Kinzinger of Illinois, a six-term congressman and Air Force veteran, as “Pelosi Republicans,” referring to the House speaker who chose them to sit on the special panel investigating the assault. As the minority leader, he suggested he might try to strip them of other committee assignments as punishment.
Around the same time, Ms. Pelosi made it clear that the pair would have prominent roles in the proceedings. Ms. Cheney would be cast in the spot traditionally played by the ranking member of a committee, afforded the chance to make an opening statement immediately after the chairman, Representative Bennie Thompson, Democrat of Mississippi.
The divergent moves reflected the unusual place in which Ms. Cheney and Mr. Kinzinger find themselves as the investigation gets underway — ostracized by their own party and embraced by Democrats as the only Republicans willing to demand a full and bipartisan accounting for the worst attack on Congress in centuries.
It was only months ago that Mr. McCarthy himself said that President Donald J. Trump “bears responsibility” for the mob violence; Senator Mitch McConnell, the top Republican, warned that following Mr. Trump’s lies about a stolen election would lead democracy into a “death spiral”; and scores of Republicans called for an investigation of what had happened on Jan. 6.
But despite the injuries, blood and death of that day, which threatened to end the United States’ streak of peaceful transfers of presidential power, Republicans quickly fell into line behind Mr. Trump. Some denied or downplayed the violence, others embraced conspiracy theories about who was to blame and many simply pushed to stop talking about the riot.
Republican lawmakers who had once demanded answers voted against forming an independent bipartisan commission to investigate, with only 35 in the House supporting its creation. Even the 10 Republicans who voted to impeach Mr. Trump have mostly stayed silent.
Only Ms. Cheney and Mr. Kinzinger, who have continued to be vocal in denouncing the former president and the violence he inspired, supported the creation of the select committee. It is to hold its first hearing on Tuesday, when several police officers who battled the mob are scheduled to testify.
The situation reflects what many Republicans say is their political reality: They know supporters of Mr. Trump, believing his lie of a stolen election, committed the violence on Jan. 6, but they are also aware that dwelling on that could hurt their chances of retaking the House in the 2022 elections. So nearly all of them are endeavoring to talk about anything — immigration, rising inflation, spiking crime rates — other than the riot, which they say Democrats want to keep in the news as much as possible and in the minds of voters.
All, that is, except for Ms. Cheney and Mr. Kinzinger. They have gambled that their political future lies in trying to transform the party back to the one they say they knew growing up. In their telling, they want to return the Republican Party to an idealized version of the Bush or Reagan administrations emphasizing lower taxes, hawkish defense and social conservatism.
They have also cast themselves as the adults in the party.
Ms. Cheney, who was ousted from House leadership in May for criticizing Mr. Trump, responded to Mr. McCarthy’s insult on Monday by calling his behavior “pretty childish.”
“We’ve got very serious business here,” she said, before entering a committee room to prepare for Tuesday’s hearing. “We have important work to do.”
Mr. Kinzinger chastised those Republicans who have sought to downplay or deny the violence.
“For too long, we’ve been pretending that Jan. 6 didn’t happen,” Mr. Kinzinger told reporters. “Kevin McCarthy is technically my Republican leader. And to call members of Congress by childish names like Donald Trump used to do, I guess is just kind of par for the course.”
Democrats have taken the opportunity to highlight divisions in the Republican Party and to try to burnish the credibility of their investigation.
By granting Ms. Cheney a marquee speaking slot at the hearing, Democrats were ensuring that she would have a powerful platform to surface her concerns about the assault, lending bipartisan legitimacy to an inquiry that Republicans have worked to dismiss as a one-sided political attack.
Understand the Removal of Liz Cheney
House Republicans voted on May 12 to oust Representative Liz Cheney of Wyoming from their leadership ranks for her refusal to stay quiet about President Donald J. Trump’s election lies.
- Backlash to Impeachment Vote: In January, Ms. Cheney issued a stinging statement announcing that she would vote to impeach Mr. Trump. In the statement, which drove a fissure through her party, she said that there had “never been a greater betrayal by a president of the United States” than Mr. Trump’s incitement of a mob that attacked the Capitol on Jan. 6. She was among 10 Republicans who voted to impeach him. A group of Mr. Trump’s most strident allies in the House called on her to resign from her leadership post.
- Leadership Challenge: In February, Ms. Cheney fended off a challenge to strip her of her leadership position in a secret ballot vote. Even as a majority of House Republicans opposed impeaching Mr. Trump, most were not prepared to punish one of their top leaders for doing so — at least not under a blanket of anonymity.
- Censure: Ms. Cheney also faced opposition from the Wyoming Republican Party, which censured her and demanded she resign. Ms. Cheney rejected those calls and urged Republicans to be “the party of truth.”
- New Challenge: Ms. Cheney continued her blunt condemnation of Mr. Trump and her party’s role in spreading the false election claims that inspired the Jan. 6 attack, prompting a new push to oust her from her leadership role. This time, the effort was backed by Representative Kevin McCarthy, the minority leader.
- Removal: Ms. Cheney framed her expulsion as a turning point for her party and declared in an extraordinary speech that she would not sit by quietly as Republicans abandoned the rule of law. She embraced her downfall and offered herself as a cautionary tale in what she is portraying as a battle for the soul of the Republican Party. The removal came by voice vote during a brief but raucous closed-door meeting in an auditorium on Capitol Hill.
- Impact and Analysis: What began as a battle over the party’s future after the violent end to the Trump presidency has collapsed into a one-sided pile-on by Team Trump against critics like Ms. Cheney, a scion of a storied Republican family. The episode, a remarkable takedown that reflected the party’s intolerance for dissent and unswerving fealty to the former president, has called attention to internal party divisions between more mainstream and conservative factions about how to win back the House in 2022.
- Successor: On May 14, House Republicans elected Representative Elise Stefanik of New York, a vocal defender of Mr. Trump, as their No. 3 leader. Ms. Stefanik pledged to maintain a focus “on unity” as conference chair, but she has also drawn criticism from some hard-right Republicans who have questioned her conservative bona fides.
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