Savannah Behrmann USA TODAY
WASHINGTON – Guns. Masks. Conspiracy theories. Contentious issues brewing for months, and even years, between political parties and lawmakers now seem to be at a boiling point on Capitol Hill.
Tensions in Congress have been high in the past, but the rhetoric of the last few months is not business as usual.
Julian Zelizer, a professor of political history at Princeton University, told USA TODAY the current climate is “definitely one of the bad moments in American history.”
Compared to the periods before the Civil War, in the 19th century, and in the 1960s, Zelizer said, today is “at least like those, and in some ways it’s worse.” Though members may not be “literally attacking each other physically as they did in the 19th century, sometimes it feels like they’re getting awfully close.”
Now, points of contention have seemed to reach a crescendo – and amplified by the Capitol riot.
Here are a few of the issues that have lawmakers more angry with one another now than in recent history:
QAnon and conspiracy theories
The 117th Congress brought in a new class of lawmakers, including some linked to right-wing fringe movements, including the QAnon conspiracy movement, which baselessly claims a “deep-state” cabal of pedophiles tried to bring down Trump, among others.
Reps. Lauren Boebert of Colorado and Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia are two of the freshman lawmakers most known for espousing QAnon beliefs.
Greene has been a particular cracking point on Capitol Hill over the tolerance of conspiracy theories and the rhetoric that often accompanies them.
The Democratic-led House last month voted mostly along party lines to remove Greene from her two committees for a litany of incendiary, conspiratorial and menacing social media posts before she was elected, which included questioning whether the 9/11 terrorist attacks ever happened, stalking and taunting a teen survivor of the deadly Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting, and suggesting that space lasers were causing deadly wildfires in California.
The floor debate over Greene, in a chamber already riven by division and mistrust, turned raw as House members took turns arguing not just about Greene’s particular conduct but what it said about House members who demanded – or objected to – her punishment.
On top of QAnon and other right-wing extreme beliefs, 147 congressional Republicans pushed false claims that Trump won the presidential election and voted to not accept election results in Arizona and Pennsylvania.
Illinois Rep. Adam Kinzinger, one of 10 GOP lawmakers who voted to impeach Trump on an article of inciting the Jan. 6 riot on the Capitol, said his fellow Republicans need to take stock of their party.
“We’ve got to quit being a party of personality and get back to a party of principles first,” Kinzinger said on CNN. It means “going back to the American people and to the Republican Party and reminding folks of where we came from, which we’ve lost.”
Zelizer said the Republican Party has become “pretty radicalized,” a distinction that poses a challenge to this Congress.
The “world of information that Congress inhabits now is so disconnected often from facts,” he said.
The current polarization began before 2016, in the Obama era, but Trump “aggravated everything,” Zelizer said. “And he kind of played into these sources of dysfunction and elevated them.”
Guns and the Capitol
The attack on the Capitol led to changes in security protocols and heightened tensions among lawmakers, especially those who objected to President Joe Biden’s Electoral College win.
It was also later revealed some House members were armed during the Capitol attack, such as Rep. Madison Cawthorn, R-N.C., who claimed he “was armed, so we would have been able to protect ourselves.”
However, being armed in the chamber is not allowed — even if you are a member of Congress. Beyond that, the rules are murky: Members are exempt from a federal law banning firearms on the Capitol grounds, but weapons are still prohibited in legislative chambers.
After the riot, which left several people dead, including a Capitol police officer, House leadership put in additional security measures.
Capitol Police set up metal detectors outside of the House floor to screen all members and staffers. While magnetometers always scan all other entrants of the Capitol, including staff, visitors and media, at every external door of the Capitol complex, lawmakers bypass them.
Several GOP lawmakers objected. After they were installed, Rep. Greg Steube, R-Fla., slammed the new metal detectors as “atrocities” while speaking on the House floor, and complained they “prevent members from exercising their constitutional rights.”
Among the House Republicans who balked at the new requirement is Boebert, who has been vocal about her desire to carry her firearms around Washington, D.C., and on Capitol Hill.
Republican Reps. Markwayne Mullin and Steve Womack reportedly yelled at Capitol Police for being forced to go through the metal detectors.
“I was physically restrained!” Arkansas Rep. Womack shouted, while Mullin, who represents Oklahoma, said “it’s my constitutional right” and “they cannot stop me.”
Rep. Cori Bush, D-Mo., slammed her Republican colleagues for complaining about the metal detectors.
“First of all, we’re talking about your job,” Bush said during an interview on MSNBC. “If you work at McDonald’s, you have to wear the uniform or you’re not working today.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi proposed fines of $5,000 for a first-time offense and $10,000 for a second, for members who do not walk through the metal detectors.
GOP Reps. Louie Gohmert of Texas and Andrew Clyde of Georgia were the first lawmakers fined by the House’s new rules.
Some lawmakers don’t trust each other to follow rules that have been in place.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., slammed her GOP colleagues for refusing to comply, saying “we still don’t yet feel safe around other members of Congress.”https://platform.twitter.com/embed/Tweet.html?creatorScreenName=usatoday&dnt=false&embedId=twitter-widget-0&frame=false&hideCard=false&hideThread=false&id=1352746110637338624&lang=en&origin=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.usatoday.com%2Fstory%2Fnews%2Fpolitics%2F2021%2F02%2F26%2Fhow-culture-war-congress-more-than-business-usual%2F6665616002%2F&siteScreenName=usatoday&theme=light&widgetsVersion=889aa01%3A1612811843556&width=550px
“Why does a member of Congress need to sneak a gun onto the House floor?” Ocasio-Cortez asked. “It is irresponsible, it is reckless, but beyond that, it is a violation of rules.”
Pelosi told reporters that some members were hindering the safety measures, saying “the enemy is within the House of Representatives.”
Last week during a Natural Resources Committee organizing meeting, Boebert used a Zoom background of a bookshelf with several high-capacity weapons displayed. When criticized, Boebert quipped the guns weren’t supposed to be in storage and were “ready for use.”
Rep. Jared Huffman, D-Calif., slammed Boebert, saying, “If somebody wants to have a shrine to their gun fetish as a Zoom backdrop in their private life, they can do that” and in the committee room, and they should be able to show up after COVID “without feeling threatened.”
However, the rhetoric, arguments, and parading over guns is not new.
In March 2020, Republican Rep. Ken Buck posted a video on Twitter of him wielding an AR-15 in his office in D.C., daring then-candidate Biden and former Rep. Beto O’Rourke, D-Texas, to “come and take it.”
The post led to a outpouring over angry posts from his Democratic colleagues and gun control advocates, with some saying they felt unsafe.
Masks and face coverings in COVID
Mask-wearing and other preventative measures have become a partisan flashpoint over the course of the pandemic, with some on the right saying the health measures infringe on their civil liberties.
And despite at least 64 members of Congress testing positive for the coronavirus or its antibodies, wearing a mask remains a contentious issue nearly a year into the pandemic.
In July, Pelosi issued a mask mandate after Gohmert tested positive for the virus after flouting social distancing and mask-wearing ordinances.
But several GOP lawmakers have refused to wear a mask on the House floor throughout the pandemic. And many Democratic lawmakers complained that several Republican colleagues refused to wear personal protective equipment offered during the January Capitol riots. Several Democratic lawmakers tested positive for the virus after being locked down during the Capitol attack.
House Democrats have implemented a fine for not wearing face masks on the House floor.
Lawmakers could be fined $500 on a first offense and $2,500 for a second offense, and fines would be deducted from their pay.
The ardent emotions surrounding masks reached a bubbling point in January, leading to an quarrel between two lawmakers.
Bush requested to move her Washington office away from Greene, saying the Georgia Republican “berated” her in the Capitol over a mask altercation.
A video of the incident recorded and posted by Greene shows the maskless congresswoman speaking into the camera and walking down a hall when someone off camera shouts at her to “put on a mask.”
Greene can be seen yelling back at Bush and putting her mask on.
Bush said Jan. 29 during an interview on MSNBC that she decided to say something to Greene because face coverings keep members safe and allow them to do their jobs, adding that she would do the same to any other member not complying.
Some Republican lawmakers insist they don’t need masks anymore because they already had COVID, falsely stating it is impossible to get it again.
Rhetoric over protests
Lawmakers have also clashed over protests, with some comparing the Jan. 6 insurrection to the racial justice protests that erupted in the summer following the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others.
Though an overwhelming majority of the summer protests were peaceful, some demonstrations did have unrest. Republicans often conflate the Capitol riot with Black Lives Matter protests in D.C. and Portland.
When the Capitol was breached, panic ensued as protesters attempted to break into the chambers where lawmakers were certifying the 2020 election results.
The supporters of Trump smashed their way into the Capitol – the worst attack on the building since 1814 – and members of Congress were thrust into a chaotic wartime scene.
However, some GOP lawmakers, like Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., one of Trump’s strongest supporters on Capitol Hill, were quick to compare the attack to racial justice protests when the House impeached the former president for a second time.
“You can moan and groan, but he was far more explicit about his calls for peace than some of the BLM and left-wing rioters were this summer when we saw violence sweep across this nation,” Gaetz said.
Additionally, during the altercation between Greene and Bush over masks, the Missouri Democrat said her Republican colleague’s staff members also yelled at her to “stop inciting violence with Black Lives Matter.”
Greene has also said Bush was leading a “terrorist mob” because she supports Black Lives Matter.
Lawmakers who voiced support for the Black Lives Matter protests have been criticized by their Republican lawmakers.
Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., tweeted that then-Sen. Kamala D. Harris’ push for donations for the Minnesota Freedom Fund for jailed protesters was helping “violent rioters in Minnesota get out of jail to do more damage.”
The rhetoric surrounding the protests even appeared during Trump’s second impeachment trial.
Trump’s defense attorneys were praised by some Republicans for comparing the summer’s unrest to the Capitol breach, while the House impeachment managers and some Senate Democrats shot down the comparisons, saying the intent behind the unrest made the two events completely separate entities.
Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., said of Democrats: “I think every one of them should reflect on their words and really think twice about what they should say when we’ve seen violence down in the District, the violence in Portland, the violence in Wisconsin. … All of that to a certain extent was influenced by the acts and the discussions, the comments made by people who walk this Capitol every single day.”