House Democrats planned a showdown vote for Thursday over stripping Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of her committee assignments for her endorsement of racist and conspiratorial views, as the chamber's top Republican signaled he would not bow to bipartisan demands to punish her.
The decision by Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., came Wednesday as Republicans also grappled over what to do about Rep. Liz Cheney, their No. 3 leader, after she backed Donald Trump's impeachment. The decisions over how to handle the two Republican lawmakers subjected the GOP to a politically agonizing test of its direction as it moves beyond Donald Trump's presidency.
Democrats increased the pressure by planning a House vote on removing Greene from her committees for her embrace of calls to violence against Democrats and bizarre fictions about faked school shootings.
But shortly after the Democratic-led House Rules Committee cleared the way for Thursday's vote, McCarthy released a statement saying Democrats were "choosing to raise the temperature" by attempting a "partisan power grab."
He condemned Greene's past endorsements of conspiracy theories — after weeks of saying little critical of her — and said the first-term Georgia congresswoman had recognized in a private conversation that she must meet "a higher standard" as a lawmaker.
"I hold her to her word, as well as her actions going forward," McCarthy said.
Separately, House Republicans were meeting privately Wednesday about an effort by Trump loyalists to push Cheney out of her leadership post. That move was sparked after Cheney, a daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney and a fixture of the party establishment, became one of just 10 House Republicans to vote to impeach Trump last month.
"I won't apologize for the vote," Cheney told her colleagues, according to a person familiar with the session who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the private meeting.
During a break in that closed-door session, McCarthy told reporters he'd defended Cheney inside.
"People can have differences of opinion. That's what you can have a discussion about. Liz has a right to vote her conscience," said McCarthy, who'd previously given no clear signal about whether he'd support his lieutenant.
At the earlier Rules Committee meeting, Chair Jim McGovern, D-Mass., said lawmakers would send "an awful message" if they took no action on Greene. "If this is not the bottom, I don't know what the hell is," McGovern said.
McCarthy tried to push blame onto Democrats, criticizing them for taking no action against their own lawmakers whom he didn't name, including one he said "spread anti-Semitic tropes." Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., made comments critical of Israel in 2019 and apologized.
The closed-door GOP meeting was likely to discuss the political fates of both Cheney and Greene, and touch on McCarthy's performance. He is having to guide the House GOP through one of its most contentious periods, but his favored approach of avoiding ruffling feathers has been criticized by some Republicans who think he needs to be more decisive.
That meeting was also expected to become an emotional debate over whether the GOP should follow Trump's norm-busting divisiveness or embrace the party's more traditional, policy-oriented conservative values.
The internal GOP fight over how to handle Greene and Cheney underscored the hold Trump and his voters still have on much of the party. But it's not uniform.
Around two-thirds of House Republicans voted to back Trump's effort to overturn his November election loss — just hours after his supporters' deadly storming of the Capitol that led to his impeachment for inciting insurrection. Yet Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and other GOP senators have lambasted Greene, reflecting worries that her wing of the party cannot win statewide Senate races.
House Republicans have faced bipartisan pressure to punish Greene, including from McConnell. A House vote was expected to be a political ordeal for many Republicans, forcing them to go on record defending or punishing the unapologetic, social media-savvy Greene.
She burst onto the national political scene after just a month in office and with enthusiastic support from Trump. Even during the effort to punish her, she has lashed out at Democrats and raised money on the controversy.
Republicans appointed Greene to the Education and Labor Committee, a decision that drew especially harsh criticism because of her suggestions that mass school shootings in Connecticut and Florida could be hoaxes. Greene is also on the Budget Committee.
McCarthy said Democrats turned down his offer to move Greene onto the House Small Business Committee instead.
It's unusual for party leaders to strip lawmakers of committee assignments, which can help them address their districts' needs and raise campaign contributions.
In 2019, House GOP leaders removed Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, who had a history of racist comments, from the Agriculture and Judiciary panels after wondering aloud in a New York Times story about when the term "white supremacist" became offensive. He lost the Republican primary for his seat in 2020 and is out of Congress after serving nine terms.
In online videos and through supportive "likes" on social media, Greene has voiced support for racist beliefs, calls for violence against House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and former President Barack Obama, and other false theories. She's also endorsed fictional QAnon claims that Trump was trying to unearth secret child trafficking rings run by Democrats.
The handling of Greene and Cheney presented a tricky balancing act for McCarthy. The eight-term lawmaker is hoping to become speaker should Republicans capture the House majority in the 2022 elections, and he has little interest in antagonizing any GOP colleagues.
Penalizing Cheney for what she called her "vote of conscience" on impeachment would be awkward without also punishing Greene. Action against either risked angering the GOP's numerous Trump supporters or its more traditional conservative backers.
Cheney foes have said they have enough votes to force her removal from leadership. But it was unclear whether GOP lawmakers would vote on that during Wednesday's meeting or if McCarthy would somehow delay that showdown.
The Senate plans to begin its impeachment trial of Trump next week. In a procedural vote last week, all but five GOP senators voted to scuttle the proceedings, indicating that his conviction is unlikely.