You’ve probably seen the clip. It was all over cable news.
There’s Republican Kevin McCarthy walking up the aisle of the House chamber after yet another failed attempt to garner enough votes to become House speaker. He’s been at this for days, and he now wears the countenance of a guy who’s fed up with pulling the starter cord on a stubbornly uncooperative lawnmower. You wonder if he’s going to muster the energy to pull the cord yet again or just kick the darn machine and call it a day.
McCarthy approaches his chief antagonist, Florida Republican Matt Gaetz. In the ensuing discussion, Gaetz jabs his finger at McCarthy. There’s no audio so TV pundits fill the silence. “What a sight to see!” exclaimed one CNN commentator.
As McCarthy turns and walks away, a man wearing a pink tie and 1980s haircut enters the scene. This is Alabama Republican Mike Rodgers. Clearly angered, Rodgers leans forward to confront Gaetz. Quickly, a man reaches from behind and grabs Rodgers’ shoulder and face and pulls him back.
This is high drama on the House floor and the closest C-SPAN will ever get to a WWE smackdown. Surely it was a thrill to be in the room for what was the most contentious struggle for the speaker’s gavel in more than a century. Or was it?
Truth is, McCarthy’s five-day, 15-vote slog to become presiding officer of the House was mostly a bore for those on the other side of the chamber.
“It was a lot more interesting on C-SPAN than on the House floor,” said Rep. Summer Lee, newly elected from Pennsylvania’s 12th District. “It was very quiet, especially for Democrats. We had no information, no idea how long the standoff was going to last. We were just sitting there and listening for our names to be called [for a vote]. It was hard to even plan to eat.”
Both Lee and Rep. Chris Deluzio, the newly elected Democrat from the state’s 17th District, toss out the word “chaotic” when describing the Republican-led process.
“The arguing and the deal-making on the other side — it was dramatic but disappointing, more than anything else,” Deluzio said. “We just couldn’t do the country’s work.
“We couldn’t respond to a crisis, we couldn’t even name a post office or have any committee hearings until a speaker was elected.”
The first day on any gig can be confusing, and Congress is no exception. Lee said settling in as a new member of the House can be a bit mystifying. It hinges on the idea that “you’ll know what you need to know when you know it.”
On Tuesday, Jan. 3, new members tried to figure out which doors to use, how to vote, where their families should situate themselves (lots of family members traveled to the Capital, anticipating they’d get to witness the swearing-in ceremony). And then, with the first vote to elect a speaker, everything ground to a halt, at least for Democrats. All they could do was wait until it was time to cast their ballots — and when they did, they threw their support behind Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries. Most Republicans voted for McCarthy, but 19 went astray. Thus began McCarthy’s horror show.
“I had an office full of people I never got to greet,” said Lee, whose status as the state’s first Black woman to serve in Congress has drawn national attention. “I had family in town. We were not sure if they should leave. Constituents were coming in to greet me and be a part of the day. And we [Congress] were on the floor doing a very slow roll call vote over and over again.”
Deluzio’s family traveled to Washington, too, and had to depart before witnessing the swearing-in ceremony, which took place early on Saturday morning, after the 15th ballot gave McCarthy enough votes to secure his grasp on the speaker’s gavel.
“It’s too bad,” Deluzio said, “but this job isn’t about me or my family. It’s about serving Western Pennsylvania. Congress is now off and running, that’s what it’s about.”
“I don’t think I even have a picture from my swearing in,” Lee said. “It was just very quick and anti-climatic. You say, ‘I do’ — there were 434 of us — and then there were the speeches. And it was 2 in the morning.”
Afterward, both Lee and Deluzio began the process of setting up their district offices so they could respond to the needs of their constituents. Deluzio’s 17th encompasses all of Beaver County and a sizeable chunk of Allegheny County. Lee’s district, the 12th, includes areas that lean strongly Democratic, and others that are more conservative.
“We have a big district,” said Lee. “It’s diverse. It includes Pittsburgh, the Mon Valley, parts of Westmoreland County. We have different folks with different needs. Getting the lay of the land and getting folks out in all of those areas is a priority.”
By Wednesday morning, the first week’s chaos and drama had become the stuff of history, and the chamber was appropriately quiet, given the somber task immediately ahead.
Wearing a dark suit, a blue shirt and a red patterned tie, Deluzio stepped up to a podium, adjusted the microphone slightly and began his first speech as a congressman. “I rise today with the solemn duty to honor the life of Brackenridge Police Chief Justin McIntire, who was gunned down in the line of duty last week,” he said. A gunman killed McIntire during a foot chase in Brackenridge on Jan. 2. “His family and my community mourn Chief McIntire today at his funeral, as does this House and this country.”
Afterward, Deluzio spoke briefly on the phone to outline his priorities: “Bringing manufacturing and strong union jobs back to Western Pennsylvania. Basic reproductive freedoms. Making democracy strong. I’m not naive. My Republican colleagues are not going to want to work with me on those things.”
He believes both sides can come together on some issues — one example is veterans affairs, he said. Deluzio noted he was one of 146 Democrats who joined Republicans in voting to establish a select committee tasked with studying competition between the United States and the Chinese Communist Party, and with making policy recommendations.
Lee, too, spoke of the work ahead. In her first print interview since being sworn in, she noted that members will soon be receiving their committee assignments. Where does she want to land?
“I would love to serve on judiciary,” she said.
It’s a committee that deals with many of her concerns — voting rights, antitrust laws, criminal legal reform, money and politics. And she has experience — she served on the judiciary committee in the state house. But she realizes it’s difficult for a freshman member of Congress in the minority party to land such an influential appointment.
Another committee that interests her is Education and Labor. “Labor is important to me and our region,” she said.
In fact, she quickly responded last week after House Republicans dropped the word “labor” from the committee’s name. It’s now the Committee on Education and the Workforce. Republicans contend “labor” is an antiquated term that carries negative connotations.
“As if we needed any more proof of @HouseGOP’s contempt for workers and the working class,” Lee tweeted. “Every day I’m your Congresswoman, I’ll work tirelessly to protect and expand your labor rights — whether you work at a hospital, coffeeshop, or in Congress.”
Lee says she also wants to focus on economic justice, housing justice and environmental justice. “We have to find a way, even though we’re freshman, to get on committees and to find ways to fight for those things,” she said. “We have to forge a pathway.”