WASHINGTON — It's purge o'clock again in the GOP.
But House Republicans aren't rushing to ostracize Rep. Paul Gosar of Arizona, who publicly posted a video of an animated version of himself killing a Democratic colleague and attacking President Joe Biden.
Instead, their fury is aimed at 13 GOP colleagues who voted with most Democrats — and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. — for Biden's $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill. At the exact moment that Democrats largely unified, the Republican fracture over fealty to former President Donald Trump revealed itself anew.
Trump called the recalcitrants "RINOs" — Republicans in name only — after last week's House vote, saying they should be "ashamed of themselves" for supporting "Democrat longevity." And one of his chief allies is calling for vengeance.
The question for "our conference is whether or not we will allow people to be designated as Republican leaders on major committees and subcommittees while they fight for the Joe Biden agenda and against the America First agenda," Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., said on NewsMax. "If that isn't cleaned up, if that isn't corrected, then the current Republican minority you see in the House might not be ready to earn the majority."
And Punchbowl News reported Tuesday that GOP leaders are bracing for calls for the 13 to be stripped of committee assignments.
These potential sanctions differ in degree, but share a purpose: to intimidate Republicans from stepping off the party line, as drawn by Trump.
While GOP leaders can't remove rank-and-file lawmakers from their committees — that's technically the purview of the full Democratic-majority House and Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. — the political bloodlust sends another unmistakable message that Republican elected officials are subject to punishment if they put their constituents' interests ahead of their loyalty to Trump.
It also shines a bright light on divisions within the party at a time when Republican leaders would prefer to present a unified front against Biden's agenda and cast Democrats as disorderly.
"History has a funny way of repeating itself, and, unfortunately, members haven't learned from mistakes of the past," said one former House GOP leadership aide. "The circular firing squad benefits nobody but the other side."
The calculus on committee assignments is a different equation from the one Republicans considered earlier this year when they removed Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., from the No. 3 post in GOP leadership over her vote to impeach Trump, as well as her support for the committee investigating the Jan. 6 Capitol riot and her general defiance of Trump and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif.
Though many of the same political dynamics are at play, Republicans could say she was sacked because they no longer had faith in her as a leader. In that way, Gaetz's focus on the ranking-member slots — the Republican leaders of committees and subcommittees — is more analogous to the Cheney situation than completely removing lawmakers from panels.
Still, seeking to punish members for their votes on policy — to take away their constituents' voice in the legislative process — is an indication that some Republicans see public service as secondary to Trump service.
There was no purge after the putsch attempt in January. Instead, the House GOP has sought to protect rank-and-file members and Trump allies who supported the effort to overturn the 2020 presidential election results by lie, by vote or by force.
Besides, the biggest stick belongs to Trump, not the House Republican conference. Already this year, Reps. Anthony Gonzalez, R-Ohio, and Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., have announced they won't seek re-election following Trump tirades against them. It was clear they couldn't win renomination with Trump bashing them. Cheney is seeking re-election, and Trump is pressing Wyoming Republicans to oust her.
No one in the House GOP has that kind of veto power over who can successfully seek office as a Republican.
GOP aides said they had not heard yet of any concerted effort to exact specific retribution against the 13 lawmakers, but the House Freedom Caucus — which includes Trump's closest allies in the House — is scheduled to have its regular meeting in Washington on Monday. House Republican leaders will probably find out the following morning during the full Republican Conference meeting whether lawmakers are just frustrated with their colleagues or bent on seeking vengeance.
"Republicans will get together and meet in conference next week and talk about things concerning the conference and how we go forward against Democrats' plans," said one senior House GOP aide. "We'll start there and go on from there."
A spokesperson for Rep. Andy Biggs, R-Ariz., who is the Freedom Caucus chair, did not reply immediately to a request for comment on whether Biggs would support any effort to punish the recalcitrant baker's dozen.
But what already has been made clear is that Republican infighting over Trump hasn't stopped. It just faded for a while while Democrats battled over policy.