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GOP votes to dump Cheney from leadership

The Hill logo The Hill 12/05/2021 Mike Lillis and Scott Wong

In an extraordinary bow to former President Trump, House Republicans voted Wednesday to purge GOP Conference Chairwoman Liz Cheney from her leadership post, punishing the conservative Wyoming Republican for daring to refute Trump's lie that the 2020 election was stolen.

U.S. Representative Liz Cheney (R-WY) speaks to the media as she arrives on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., May 12, 2021. REUTERS/Evelyn Hockstein © Thomson Reuters U.S. Representative Liz Cheney (R-WY) speaks to the media as she arrives on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., May 12, 2021. REUTERS/Evelyn Hockstein

The decision was made by voice vote, meaning there will be no tally of the lawmakers who voted to dump Cheney, or of those who wanted her to stay on. Sources inside the closed-door vote said it was an overwhelming vote against Cheney.

That represents a remarkable shift from a similar challenge to her leadership status in February, when she won handily. And it marked the first time in recent memory that a congressional GOP leader was toppled by rank-and-file Republicans in the middle of their term through a formal vote.

Trump was not on Wednesday's ballot, but he was the elephant in the room as Cheney's colleagues lined up ahead of the vote to condemn her for what has become an unpardonable sin in today's Republican Party: calling out the former president for his repeated falsehoods about his election defeat.

"The problem is you can't have a Republican conference chair who continually recites Democrat talking points," Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), former head of the conservative House Freedom Caucus and a close Trump ally, said Tuesday night. "You can't have a Republican conference chair who takes positions that 90 percent of the party oppose."

Less than 30 minutes before the GOP gathering, Trump weighed in with another broadside against Cheney, accusing her of promoting unnecessary wars in a message that paved the way for Republicans to oust her shortly afterward.

"The Republicans in the House of Representatives have a great opportunity today to rid themselves of a poor leader, a major Democrat talking point, a warmonger, and a person with absolutely no personality or heart," Trump said in a brief statement.

Amid all the attacks, Cheney has not backed down. In a speech on the House floor Tuesday night, a defiant Cheney made clear that her ouster won't stop her from speaking out against Trump's ongoing efforts to sow doubt about President Biden's victory and undermine the election system.

"Today, we face a threat America has never seen before. A former president who provoked a violent attack on this Capitol in an effort to steal the election has resumed his aggressive effort to convince Americans that the election was stolen from him. He risks inciting further violence," Cheney said on the floor.

"Remaining silent and ignoring the lie emboldens the liar. I will not participate in that," she added. "I will not sit back and watch in silence while others lead our party down a path that abandons the rule of law and joins the former president's crusade to undermine our democracy."

The rebuke was a clear shot at Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), who wants to be Speaker and has made the determination that Republicans cannot flip control of the House without Trump's support.

In a letter to colleagues this week, McCarthy said removing Cheney from the No. 3 leadership post was necessary to resolve "internal conflicts" that have distracted and divided Republicans as they focus on winning back the majority in 2022.

With Wednesday's vote, Republicans are now "very unified," Rep. Ben Cline (R-Va.) told The Hill. "We have a diverse conference with diverse views; we celebrate that. And we look to our leadership for our messaging, and we don't want to distract from that message."

Even so, there were signs of Republican fissures everywhere. Cheney's allies have rushed to her defense, warning that ousting the political scion for the crime of truth-telling would send a terrible message to voters that the GOP favors Trump over election integrity.

"Kevin McCarthy (an employee of Donald Trump) may win ... but history won't be kind," Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.), who's emerged as Cheney's most vocal backer, tweeted Tuesday night. "Never has our party gone after it's own leadership like this, but Kevin and Steve Scalise made history, because Trump has thin skin. I'd be embarrassed if I was them."

There is also a looming GOP fight over who will fill Cheney's shoes as the No. 3 House Republican.

One of 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach Trump for provoking the Jan. 6 attack, Cheney is expected to be replaced by moderate Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.), a Trump loyalist, by the end of the week. However, some conservatives are balking at the GOP leadership's handpicked successor, warning that Stefanik is much too liberal to represent the 212-member conference.

Her critics point to her vote against Trump's 2017 tax cuts and her opposition to several GOP border security bills that Trump had favored.

"We must avoid putting in charge Republicans who campaign as Republicans but then vote for and advance the Democrats' agenda once sworn in," Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas), a member of the Freedom Caucus, wrote to his GOP colleagues.

"Therefore, with all due respect to my friend, Elise Stefanik, let us contemplate the message Republican leadership is about to send by rushing to coronate a spokesperson whose voting record embodies much of what led to the 2018 ass-kicking we received by Democrats."

On Tuesday, Roy declined to name his preferred choice for conference chair but advocated for Republicans to take some time to allow for internal negotiations over whether Stefanik is the right choice.

"I think we oughtn't rush it," Roy told reporters in the Capitol. "We've got an agenda that we need to build to make sure the American people are following our ideas."

Roy and other conservatives have said it might be wise to just keep Cheney's post vacant, a move that would allow Cheney's deputy, House Republican Conference Vice Chairman Mike Johnson (La.), to assume the role of chief messenger for the House GOP for the next two years.

"I've expressed some of the same concerns" about Stefanik's voting record, Johnson told reporters. "I think a deliberate effort would serve the conference well and all involved. I've been on record saying that I don't think we should rush such an important decision."

Other conservatives have thrown their weight behind Stefanik, praising both her communications skills and her role defending Trump during his first impeachment.

"She's got the support of the president, the support of the leader, support of the whip," Jordan told reporters outside the Capitol. "And I think she's probably going to be the next conference chair, don't you?"


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