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If House Republicans vote to purge Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney as their third-ranking leader in a secret ballot vote Wednesday, it will cement their commitment to the political legacy of former President Donald Trump.
That vote to take away Cheney’s leadership role seems likely, but there has been a last-minute push by Republican senators and conservatives in the House that could mean surprises.
As this drama unfolds, it’s worth looking back at what exactly Cheney – the daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney – did to spark the campaign to oust her, and why it seems so likely to cost her this job.
What did Liz Cheney do?
The acts for which Cheney is being threatened with removal from the Republican leadership are twofold.
First, she voted to impeach Trump. Along with nine other House Republicans, Cheney sided with Democrats and voted to impeach Trump earlier this year after he fomented the storming of the Capitol and rebellion against the Electoral College.
She said he, “summoned this mob, assembled the mob and lit the flame of this attack.”
“There has never been a greater betrayal by a President of the United States of his office and his oath to the Constitution,” Cheney said.
But Cheney was the only member of the House GOP leadership to vote for impeachment. This in itself was not enough to cost her the leadership position. In the shocked aftermath of the storming of the Capitol she maintained the support of House GOP leader, Kevin McCarthy, and easily survived an earlier secret ballot effort to oust her.
Second, she wouldn’t be quiet about it. Rather than show penance for her vote, and unlike other GOP leaders in Congress, Cheney has refused to either buy into the false reality that the election was stolen from Trump or quietly tolerate it.
When Trump pushed it again this month, she called him out
“The 2020 presidential election was not stolen,” Cheney tweeted in early May after Trump said it was. “Anyone who claims it was is spreading THE BIG LIE, turning their back on the rule of law, and poisoning our democratic system.”
What’s clear from this episode is that critical thinking – and criticism of Trump – will not be tolerated in the GOP.
Why do Republicans want to oust her from the leadership role?
It was for this continued airing of differences that McCarthy turned on Cheney, either leading or following the rest of the caucus.
He has endorsed Rep. Elise Stefanik, a New Yorker who is more moderate on policy as Republicans go but has solidified her bona fides by aiding and abetting Trump’s conspiracy theories.
On the one hand, this makes complete sense. If the vast majority of the party is either pushing or willing to tolerate the false idea that the election was stolen from Trump, despite all the evidence to the contrary, their leaders should share those views.
McCarthy argues that members can have whatever views they want and their constituents will tolerate. But Cheney’s leadership job requires her to unite the party against Democrats.
“Any member can take whatever position they believe in,” McCarthy told Fox News over the weekend. “The voters vote on the individuals and they make that. What we’re talking about is a position in leadership.”
And the party leaders need to be united against Democrats, he said, arguing the other party has a socialist agenda for the country.
What does the party conference chair do?
The way it’s supposed to work is that the House GOP Conference chair “generally communicates the House Republican message to the public,” according to the House GOP website.
And specifically on this, Cheney’s message is out of step with a party that is in Trump’s thrall.
Cheney has continued to communicate, factually, that fraud did not cost Trump the election, and that it’s more important for Republicans to stick by their commitment to the Constitution rather than the appeal of Trump.
“History is watching,” she wrote in The Washington Post. “Our children are watching. We must be brave enough to defend the basic principles that underpin and protect our freedom and our democratic process. I am committed to doing that, no matter what the short-term political consequences might be.”
Will a vote to remove Cheney from that role mean she gets kicked out of Congress?
It’s important to note here that Cheney will still be a Republican and will still be in Congress whatever happens on Wednesday. House Republicans, to McCarthy’s point, are respectful of the fact that Wyoming’s voters elected Cheney as their representative. They’ll get the chance to elect Cheney or someone else in 2022 at the midterm election. It seems likely that Cheney will face a primary challenge if she decides to run again. Read more here about the view from Wyoming, where a lot of Republicans seem to believe Trump won the election.
The vote to kick Cheney out of the House leadership will likely occur Wednesday, and it is expected that North Carolina Rep. Virginia Foxx will start the process during a closed-door meeting. Republicans may not move to vote on replacing Cheney, either with Stefanik or someone else, for another week or more.
And what comes next for Republicans?
There are many current and former Republicans concerned about the direction the party is taking.
There are former party leaders, like George W. Bush. There are moderates, like former Pennsylvania Rep. Charlie Dent, now a CNN contributor. There are former governors like Ohio’s John Kasich. There are Republicans who self-purged themselves from the party, like former Michigan Rep. Justin Amash – who became an independent before leaving Congress altogether – and Republicans who were more forcefully purged like former Sen. Jeff Flake.
John Boehner, the former House Speaker, has written about his difficulty leading a party that is increasingly anti-establishment.
But it is his often-repeated quip about leadership that explains Cheney’s problem with the current GOP.
“A leader with no followers is just a guy taking a walk,” he says, explaining how he’d be forced into positions he didn’t like in order to keep the party unified.
In this case, it’s a woman, Cheney, who is refusing to walk away from the Constitution. We’ll see how many followers she has in the current House GOP.