The 116th Congress began with prayer.
The first day of the 116th Congress ended with profanity.
It was 12:01 p.m. Thursday. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, D-Mo., an ordained Methodist minister from the St. James United Methodist Church in Kansas City, climbed the dais in the House chamber to lead lawmakers in the invocation.
“In unbridled optimism, I offer this prayer,” said Cleaver.
Cleaver spoke of “the great challenges of this day, fraught with tribalism at home and turbulence abroad.” He beseeched the House “to rise as a legislative body above political selfishness” and “attempt to become architects of a kinder nation.”
“Dedicate ourselves to the healing of open sores in a land where there is far too much mistrust of those who are different,” said Cleaver.
The House had not even sworn-in freshman Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., at the time of Cleaver’s intersession. But by nightfall, Tlaib captured more headlines than even fellow freshman Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y.
Tlaib called the President of the United States a “m----- f-----.”
Tlaib’s expletive-laced rant presented House Republicans an opportunity on a platter.
“Is this the behavior that we are going to find with this new majority party in Congress?” asked House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif. “We watched a brand-new speaker say nothing to (Tlaib). Somebody should stand up to her. She’s the Speaker.”
A few minutes later, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., headed to the White House for a meeting with President Trump on the government shutdown.
“Are you going to talk to Tlaib about her language,” yours truly asked Pelosi as she headed for a Capitol exit.
“I’m going to talk to the president about his language,” retorted Pelosi.
Most Democrats were beside themselves over Tlaib’s vulgar epithet. But Members of Congress have long cataloged President Trump’s crude discourse, ad hominem attacks and swearing.
“Look at what we’ve heard for years from him,” observed one Democrat who asked to not be identified when speaking about the president. “He set the standard. Of course you’re going to start to hear talk like that from everybody now.”
“I think that you also have seen yesterday and over the course of the last 24 hours, in particular, a real ramp-up in rhetoric. Name calling. The kind of politicization and partisanship the American people are sick and tired of,” claimed House Republican Conference Chairwoman Liz Cheney, R-Wy. Cheney accused Democrats of unleashing a “level of vitriol.”
Some recalled that Cheney’s father, former Vice President Dick Cheney, infamously told Sen. Pat Leahy, D-Vt., to “go f&$ yourself” during a 2004 visit to the Senate floor.
Former House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., chastised Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., for suggesting that leftist demonstrators harass Trump administration officials in restaurants and stores.
Are Republicans trying to have it both ways? Calling out Tlaib’s obscenity and the suggestions of Waters while many GOPers ignore remarks of President Trump?
“I don’t think so,” replied Cheney.
Republicans relish a sideshow like this. It takes focus off the partial government shutdown and redirects attention on a still undefined Democratic House majority.
Many have heard of Ocasio-Cortez. She’s presented an unvarnished liberalism. A push for a “green new deal” and higher taxes. All politics is local. That may work in the Bronx and other leftist bastions. But does the public know much about moderate freshmen Democrats who won in November?
Have they heard of Reps. Joe Cunningham, D-S.C., Ben McAdams, D-Utah, or Jared Golden, D-Maine? They all secured hard-fought wins in battleground districts.
But you can bet that when it comes to freshmen, people have heard of Ocasio-Cortez and now Tlaib. Their politics may resonate in Democratic strongholds. But the casual observer may perceive that the entire Democratic freshman class is full of nothing but borderline socialists and those who cuss out the President.
This cognizance could scare some swing voters and does little for Democrats trying to build a national brand that’s not urban-centric.
Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, questioned Mr. Trump’s character to lead in a Washington Post op-ed. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ken., shot back that Romney portrayed himself as “holier than thou.” Paul suggested senators watch their language. Yet the Kentucky Republican sidestepped questions about the President’s attacks on others.
“I just don’t think the president deserves to have a new senator coming in, attacking his character,” said Paul.
As speaker, Pelosi has wrestled with disciplining members for intemperate remarks – of even the opposite party.
Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., hectored President Obama during a speech to a Joint Session of Congress in September, 2009, shouting “you lie!” House rules bar lawmakers from making personal attacks or impugning the motives of a president during a House session. The House didn’t vote to reprimand or censure Wilson for his outburst. Pelosi opposed an official sanction. House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., instead secured a less formal “resolution of disapproval” to discipline his Palmetto State colleague.
Emanuel Cleaver was visibly upset at Tlaib’s broadside against the president, especially considering his opening prayer.
“There’s a fear among some that we need to impeach the president. On the night of my re-election, I said I’m not going back to Washington for impeachment, but for improvement,” said Cleaver. “Obviously there are some who see things differently.”
That said, Cleaver observed that Mr. Trump’s own harsh rhetoric “has created a new kind of climate.” He added that if Congress is to “heal the open sores infecting the entire country” which he spoke about on opening day, lawmakers will “have to rise above.”
“This makes the sore nastier and increases the likelihood of contagion,” said Cleaver of Tlaib’s comments. “This young person who just got elected may think this is okay.”
On Friday, House Democrats rolled out their first big piece of legislation for the new Congress: H.R. 1. It’s a bill designed to improve government transparency. The legislation is numbered H.R. 1 because Democrats view it as one of the most important. The majority party always gets the first ten numbered bills in a Congress. Such a code would help observers track a party’s priorities.
If it were up to Pelosi, she’d probably assign number 100,000 to any articles of impeachment cooked up by rank-and-file Democrats.
But Pelosi’s been here before. Many Democrats pushed to impeach President George W. Bush over Iraq when Democrats won the House in 2006 and tapped Pelosi as Speaker the first time. The California Democrat quashed a revolt then. But can Pelosi subdue a similar rebellion now?
It’s a big challenge, especially if firebrand Democrats refuse to temper their language.