Stefanik voted into House GOP leadership, replacing Cheney

Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y., walks from her office on Capitol Hill on Wednesday, May 12, 2021.
Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y., walks from her office on Capitol Hill on Wednesday, May 12, 2021.Washington Post photo by Jabin Botsford

WASHINGTON - House Republicans elevated Rep. Elise Stefanik of New York to a leadership position Friday in what members said was an effort to focus on the next election after earlier ousting Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming for challenging former president Donald Trump's false claims about the election.

The new House GOP leadership team vowed to focus on what they described as multiple crises occurring under President Joe Biden and Democrats' "radical socialist" agenda. But they will be forced as soon as next week to again confront questions about the former president's baseless assertions that the election was stolen with votes on a commission to study the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol by a pro-Trump mob.

Stefanik called Trump the leader of party following the vote to appoint her chair of the House Republican conference, the No. 3 position in leadership, and made clear he will be central to the party's 2022 midterm strategy despite Republicans losing the White House, Senate and House under his watch.

"I believe that voters determine the leader of the Republican Party, and President Trump is the leader that they look to," Stefanik told reporters following the vote. "I support President Trump. Voters support President Trump. He is an important voice in our Republican Party, and I look forward to working with him."

Creating a commission to investigate the deadly attack on the Capitol has proven to be a contentious issue. Democrats argue an independent panel is needed for a full and fair account of what happened, similar to what occurred after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. But Republicans have depicted it as a way to attack Trump, who was impeached on charges he incited the riot, and have called on it to be broadened to investigate members of antifa, a loosely knit group of far-left activists, and Black Lives Matter who took part in racial justice protests last summer.

"If this commission is going to come forward to tell us how to protect this facility in the future, you want to make sure that the scope that you can look at all that what came up before and what came up after. So that's very concerning to me," House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., told reporters Friday. Speaker "Nancy Pelosi has played politics with this for a number of months. You've got to look at what the build up before and what has been going on after this."

Complicating matters for Republicans is that the deal over the commission was agreed to by House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., and the panel's top Republican, Rep. John Katko of New York in just three days of negotiations, giving it bipartisan bone fides.

Pelosi hailed the agreement and called the Jan. 6 attack "one of the darkest days in our history." She also announced there would be votes soon on increased spending for security at the Capitol, another likely source of partisan divisions.

Democrats are also ramping up the pressure on Republicans who have sought to downplay the severity of the attack on the Capitol and characterized the pro-Trump mob as "tourists." On Friday, Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I., began circulating a letter among his colleagues to build support for a resolution to censure Republican Reps. Andrew Clyde of Georgia, Jody Hice of Georgia and Paul Gosar of Arizona for comments over the past week that "showed more sympathy for the domestic terrorists than the Capitol police officers who died during the attack."

Tensions have been running high all week in the House over Republican comments about the attack but also over the behavior of Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga.

CNN published a video from February 2019 that shows Greene arriving at the office door of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., to find it locked. She, and the men with her, then taunt the congresswoman's staff through a mail slot and defile her guest book, all while mocking Ocasio-Cortez.

"You need to stop being a baby and stop locking your door and come out and face the American citizens that you serve," Greene said. "If you want to be a big girl you need to get rid of your diaper and come out and be able to talk to the American citizens instead of just having to use a flap, a little flap, it's kind of like crazy. Sad."

The release of thevideo followed an incident Wednesday afternoon when Greene followed Ocasio-Cortez off the House floor, shouting that the New York congresswoman should debate her on climate change policies and called her a terrorist sympathizer.

"I mean, this is a woman that's deeply unwell. And clearly needs some help," Ocasio-Cortez said Friday after the video was published. "Her kind of fixation has lasted for several years now."

The Friday morning vote to elevate Stefanik capped a tumultuous week for the party, which has established support for Trump's false claims about the 2020 presidential election as a defining issue, and those who challenge his falsehoods have found themselves exiled.

Stefanik moved quickly to lock down support for the No. 3 spot in House GOP leadership when it became clear earlier this month that Cheney would lose the job because she continued to challenge Trump's unfounded assertion that the election was stolen and blame him for inciting the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol. She was formally ousted Wednesday.

Democrats greeted the news of Stefanik's elevation with disdain. Pelosi's office called her a "conspiracy theorist" due to her support of Trump's false claims about the election.

"House Republicans are in a tough spot politically and Rep. Stefanik is the Conference Chair they deserve," the Speaker's office said in a statement.

Cheney is keeping her promise to remain an outspoken critic of Trump and party leaders who embrace him. In an interview with ABC News Friday, Cheney said that McCarthy should be subpoenaed to testify before the bipartisan commission if it is established because he was one of the few people who spoke directly to Trump on that day. She also applauded the scope of the commission for only focusing on what happened on Jan. 6, a suggestion she made earlier this month that angered her colleagues who said it was not the position of the party.

Moments after being chosen as the conference chair against conservative Rep. Chip Roy, R-Texas, Stefanik was pressed on whether there is a place in the party for anti-Trump voices like Cheney and Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.). She said they were part of the conference because they were elected by their districts, but emphasized she would be speaking for the members who are aligned with the former president.

"My job representing our Republican members, the vast majority, we look forward to working with President Trump," she said.

Stefanik received 134 votes while Roy received 46, according to GOP aides, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the closed meeting. Nine members voted present and three wrote in a person who was not running.

Roy played down his chances of defeating her heading into the vote Friday morning, and he congratulated her afterward.

"As I said from the beginning, our goal was to provide an alternative with a proven record of standing up not for politicians - but for freedom, the Constitution, and the conservative principles Americans hold dear," he said in a statement. "I am glad that we did, because it demonstrates a large block of our colleagues across the ideological spectrum agree."

Stefanik faced some opposition to her candidacy from conservatives who argued her record is too moderate. After being elected in 2014, Stefanik established herself as one of the more bipartisan members and opposed Trump's signature 2017 tax cuts as well as some of his environmental policies.

"I think she's liberal," Rep. Ken Buck, R-Colo., said Thursday.

But by Friday, Buck, who nominated Roy become conference chair, said that members initially skeptical of Stefanik must now "get behind Kevin McCarthy and the team, and we work hard to make sure that we get in the majority in a year and a half."

Trump also celebrated her victory.

"Congratulations to Elise Stefanik for her Big and Overwhelming victory," he said in a statement. "The House GOP is united and the Make America Great Again movement is Strong!"

Stefanik pitched herself as a unifying candidate who will focus on pushing the House Republican message and focus on attacking the Biden administration's policies, while standing by Trump's election claims.

"House Republicans will continue to put forth policies focused on growing our economy and getting people back to work, reopening schools, promoting American energy independence, securing our border, strengthening our national security, and protecting our Constitution," she said in a statement Friday.

Rank-and-file members said they hoped Stefanik's victory means they can now stay focused on picking apart the Biden administration's agenda.

Asked to reflect on the end of a tumultuous week, Rep. Jim Banks, R-Ind., who was one of the first to raise concerns about Cheney in leadership, said the intraparty debated marked a "healthy moment" for the conference.

"After we announced that Elise is the new conference chair, we'll be in a better position to focus on the Biden agenda on what agenda Speaker Pelosi is pushing on the floor and we'll win back the majority by a landslide and win back the White House in 2024," he said.

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The Washington Post's Felicia Sonmez and Colby Itkowitz contributed to this report.