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‘Toxic is spot-on’: House members describe roiling animosity among lawmakers

<i>Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images</i><br/>
Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

By Lauren Fox, CNN

Many members within the House of Representatives have told CNN in recent days that they find themselves in a toxic work environment, wrought with bitter exchanges, threats and fears about what the erosion of decorum in the chamber will mean for a body that has still not recovered 10 months after the Capitol Hill riot.

In interviews with more than a dozen members, CNN heard from Democrats and some Republicans who say things are as bad as they can remember, with no sign things will get better soon, and the fears and concerns aren’t just coming from members, but their families as well.

Last week alone, Democrats and two Republicans voted to censure Rep. Paul Gosar, a Republican from Arizona, for posting an animé video depicting the killing of fellow member Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a Democrat from New York. Initially, Gosar took the video down, but he retweeted another tweet containing the video just an hour after he endured the highest form of rebuke a member can get in the House.

As he took his punishment in the well of the House, he was surrounded by a group of colleagues rushing to his defense. His leadership never came to the floor to admonish him, only attacking the process Democrats were using.

Rep. Lauren Boebert, a Republican from Colorado, defended Gosar on the floor by calling some of her progressive Democratic colleagues the “Jihad squad,” a term she defended to CNN on Friday.

“It is shocking to me that Leader McCarthy would stand for eight and a half hours spewing disinformation about a bill that is for the American people and yet not speak a word about the atrocity of his own member putting out a video that glorifies the murder of a colleague and threatens violence against the President of the United States,” said Rep. Madeleine Dean of Pennsylvania. “I don’t know where the next basement is.”

It’s all part of the challenge members are facing now in the House, and some have opted to retire rather than endure more caustic behavior.

On the outskirts of the House chamber, metal detectors are still stationed at every door, a reminder of the fears that remain. And an effort to investigate the root cause of the attack on January 6 has been politicized and met with resistance by most Republicans. Some have even downplayed whether the events of that day were all that bad. It’s a constant reminder for some members about the state of their workplace.

“January 6th made things so much worse. I was on the floor that day. That was a forever life-changing moment on a personal level, but it was also a moment that changed Congress,” Rep. Cheri Bustos, a Democrat from Illinois, told CNN. “It started with the incessant lies that weren’t challenged and were amplified to January 6th to a member of Congress threatening lives of friends and colleagues.”

In an interview with Rep. John Garamendi, a Democrat from California, Garamendi’s wife Patricia could be heard in the background during the interview responding along with her husband that yes, the threats were as bad as they had ever been. Patricia Garamendi, who works closely with other congressional spouses on events and provides guidance on how to navigate Congress, agreed to speak with CNN for the story. She said that it’s the scariest time she can remember for the spouses of members who worry not just about their member of Congress, but their entire families.

“It took away a lot of the fun. Service is hard. Travel is hard and the issues are hard, but when you are worried about your family, it has been difficult,” she said. “I mean some kids are being escorted to school.”

‘I’m not running again’

And those are just the security threats. A massive battle over Covid-19 has only exasperated the divisions. A handful of conservative members regularly defy the House speaker’s mask mandate, racking up thousands of dollars in fines while some members publicly admit they aren’t getting vaccinated.

Standing on the steps of the US House Friday, Bustos told CNN that all of the bitterness and lies impacted her decision not to run for reelection.

“My interns are down there,” she pointed. “I always write them five pieces of advice and one of those is ‘don’t take things personally.’ I’ve tried to live that in politics. This, you can’t help but take personally. All of this has contributed to the fact that I’m not running again. I want to love what I do. I want to love who I work with. I want to respect the people I work with and that has been compromised in ways that I hope can be repaired at some point, but right now I do not feel like I can repair.”

Some of the anxiety members feel stems from bitter disagreements with the opposite party, while others say the spiral of toxicity has metastasized even to how members within the same party engage with one another. For months, progressives and moderates in the Democratic party grappled with how to pass both a bipartisan infrastructure bill and a Democrat-only bill to expand the social safety net. But the divisions within their ranks threatened both bills and resulted in sometimes public and pointed personal jabs.

“Toxic is spot-on,” Rep. Stephanie Murphy, a Democrat from Florida, said. “I think there is plenty of Dem-on-Dem violence as well as Republican and Democratic divisions. I think it is not conducive to a healthy legislative environment for colleagues to make these debates both so personal and caustic.”

‘People here need to get thicker skin’

In a series of interviews with Republicans, many downplayed the divisions outright or blamed House Speaker Nancy Pelosi for setting the wrong tone when she announced all members would need to walk through metal detectors to get to the House floor after the insurrection.

“I believe it is a consolidation of power in the Speaker’s office in the House and an abuse of power by the Speaker because she has one-party control and she is completely shutting down the voices of the minority and hiding behind Covid to accomplish it,” Rep. Cathy McMorris Rogers, a Republican from Washington state, told CNN.

Rep. Chip Roy, a Republican from Texas who advocated ahead of January 6 to certify the electoral college results, told CNN that part of the problem is that members have not moved on from January 6th.

“People here need to get thicker skin,” Roy said. “At some point here, you gotta let some things roll.”

Asked if he was including the insurrection in the things that people needed to let “roll,” Roy said “people here have got to get thicker skin about representing the people and doing their job and not making everything personal on the floor of the House.”

‘I feel safe, but it is incredibly concerning’

But for some members, the threats are very personal.

“Congressman Boebert referred to us as the ‘Jihad squad’ on the House floor. What that does is it empowers and inspires people who want to do us harm, to actually go and do that harm. She is on the House floor spewing ‘Jihad squad,’ ” Rep. Jamaal Bowman said. “I feel safe, but it is incredibly concerning that she is speaking this way and we have to respond to that in some way.”

Ocasio-Cortez, who was the subject of Gosar’s animé video, told CNN last week that sometimes it is impossible to separate the political from the personal, even as she has tried to build relationships with some Republicans.

“It is not just because they dislike me as a person. In fact, I have had many a Republican come to me on the House floor and say ‘I tell folks back home that while I don’t agree with you, I think you are a quite kind person.’ I have had Republicans come up to me after the 6th, one of them even weeping and with guilt over what happened,” Ocasio-Cortez said. “So for some … publicly, this is a performance. But it is also personal because I cannot separate myself from my gender, I cannot separate myself of how I was born, so their hatred of non-White people, their hatred of women is a hatred of me.”

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