Senate Fight Club: MAGA Republican challenges top union leader to match
Sen. Markwayne Mullin, R-Okla., attends NCAA Wrestling Championships, March 18, 2023, in Tulsa, Okla. A Tuesday hearing in the Senate devolved into an angry confrontation between Sen. Markwayne Mullin of Oklahoma and International Brotherhood of Teamsters President Sean O’Brien. Mullin challenged the Teamsters leader to “stand your butt up” and settle longstanding differences right there in the room. | Sue Ogrocki/AP

WASHINGTON—It says something about today’s congressional Republicans that one GOP representative elbowed another in his kidney and that a hotheaded MAGAite Republican senator tried to fight a union leader during a committee hearing.

The two temperamental explosions on November 14 brought to mind even worse tensions preceding the Civil War, which saw two near-fatal assaults on the Senate floor—one a caning by a Confederate lawmaker so severe that the victim spent three years recovering.

Like the segregationists and Confederate lawmakers, Congressional Republicans, especially MAGA Trumpites, have been known for their violent and vitriolic rhetoric, which at least one commentator opined could be pinned on their god, former Oval Office occupant Donald Trump, as the instigator.

The Republican rhetoric sometimes goes beyond words, such as the recent MAGAite censure of Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., for demanding a cease-fire in the Israel-Hamas war and defending Palestinian-Americans, such as herself.

The Republican-on-Republican conflict came in a Capitol corridor. Rep. Tim Burchett, R-Tenn., accused former House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., of deliberately elbowing him in the kidney. It was followed by angry shouts between the two. Burchett was one of the eight MAGAites whose votes were key to ousting McCarthy the month before.

She was flabbergasted

National Public Radio veteran congressional reporter Claudia Grisales, who was interviewing Burchett at the time, was flabbergasted.

“Did you just see that?” Burchett asked Grisales. “He’s on a downhill spiral…He just, that was pretty gutless of him. I’m disappointed in his, in him.” “I’m stunned, too,” Grisales replied.

After that, accounts differ. Grisales reported Burchett said he wouldn’t follow up against McCarthy, but then apparently he did, yelling at McCarthy. McCarthy denied elbowing Burchett, claiming only incidental contact. He later told Politico that had he decided to fight, Burchett would have come out second-best.

A “chase ensued,” Grisales reported. “You got no guts, you did so…The reporter said it right there, what kind of chicken move is that,” Grisales recalled Burchett shouting.

“I ran after McCarthy and I said, ‘What’d you do that for?’ He acted like, ‘Oh, I didn’t do anything,'” Burchett later told Politico. He called McCarthy a “jerk,” adding. “He needs to go back to Southern California.” Burchett later told other reporters he could still feel the blow, adding “It was a clean shot to the kidney.”

“I didn’t shove or elbow him, it’s a tight hallway,” McCarthy told CNN.

Later, Rep. Matt Goetz, R-Fla., the most hot-headed MAGAite who hates McCarthy—and whose legislation threw him out of the Speaker’s chair–filed a complaint against the Californian with the House Ethics Committee later the same day.

The Senate tangle came closer to a fight.

Sen. Markwayne Mullin, R-Okla., a hotheaded former mixed martial arts competitor who likes to show off his physique by refusing to wear a suit jacket or sports coat during hearings, challenged Teamsters President Sean O’Brien to a brawl.

Mullin then stood up out of his chair, rolling up his sleeves, preparing to come around the dais and tangle with the union leader in the Senate Labor Committee’s hearing room.

“If you want to run your mouth, we can be two consenting adults,” Mullin told O’Brien, following up on prior tweeted disputes, O’Brien later told CNN. “We can finish it here,” Mullin said.

Let’s do it right now

“I’d love to do it right now,” O’Brien replied.

“Well, stand your butt up, then,” declared Mullin, getting up out of his chair and rolling up his sleeves.

That’s when committee chair Bernie Sanders, Ind-Vt., intervened. Sitting next to Mullin, Sanders had to repeatedly gavel the Oklahoman back into his chair, reminding Mullin he’s now a U.S. senator, not a cage fighter, and telling him not to bring Congress into any more disrepute than it already is.

“Stop it. You’re a United States senator,” Sanders said. “This is a hearing. And God knows the American people have enough contempt for Congress. Let’s not make it worse.”

Mullin, still fuming, finally sat down. O’Brien, one of three union leaders at the witness table, stayed calm. Sanders had called the hearing to illustrate how unions benefit U.S. workers.

As obnoxious as they are, McCarthy’s elbow of Burchett and Mullins’s threat to O’Brien come nowhere close to more infamous literal floor fights, before the Civil War.

The first notable one, according to a Senate history, came in 1850 when anti-slavery Sen. Thomas Hart Benton, D-Mo., a heavyweight—literally–from a pro-slavery border state, gave an  anti-slavery speech. White nationalist Sen. Henry Foote, D-Miss., challenged him. Benton started up the chamber’s central aisle after Foote, who pulled out a pistol.

The Missourian stopped, opened his greatcoat and declared, “I have no pistols! Let him fire! Stand out of the way and let the assassin fire!” Foote was restrained.

The second assault, in 1856, was much worse. Abolitionist Sen. Charles Sumner, R-Mass., during a fiery anti-slavery speech about “Bleeding Kansas” insulted South Carolina, home of the most rabid segregationists and one of the state’s senators in particular.

Two days later, on May 22, Rep. Preston Brooks, D-S.C., another states’ righter, walked onto the Senate floor, wielding a heavy cane whose head was filled with lead. Sumner was peacefully reading at his desk when Brooks challenged him—and then struck.

“I have read your speech,” Brooks declared. “It is a libel on South Carolina.” Then Brooks savagely beat Sumner’s head and shoulders. The injuries were so bad that Sumner could not return to full-time Senate duty until 1859.

Right wing terror. It’s been around for a long time and we can unfortunately expect more of it – encouraged, aided and abetted by the likely Republican candidate for president in 2024 – Donald J. Trump.

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Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.