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Republicans Move To Oust Rep. Liz Cheney From House Leadership

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

Republican infighting over the future of their party could reach new heights in the coming week. That's because of the expected showdown in Congress over Representative Liz Cheney. She's currently the third highest-ranking Republican in the House. But Cheney's hold on that job has been iffy ever since she voted to impeach former President Trump for inciting the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. Cheney survived an earlier push to remove her from her post as chair of the House GOP conference back in January. But this week, House Republicans are likely to vote again on whether she should remain in her leadership position. For a preview of that, we're joined by NPR congressional correspondent Susan Davis. Hi, Sue.

SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: Hey, Sacha.

PFEIFFER: Is Cheney's vote to impeach Trump the sole reason that some of her colleagues want to remove her from leadership? Or is there more to it than that?

DAVIS: There's more to it than that. Obviously, the vote did not help. She was one of 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach Trump. But in the months since, she just hasn't stopped talking about it. And the fact that her leadership job is one about public messaging has really put her in conflict with most House Republicans. She never misses an opportunity to push back against Donald Trump when he continues to insist baselessly that the 2020 election was fraudulent. She even went so far this past week to suggest that his ongoing efforts were dangerous for the country and could provoke more violence. And unlike most Republicans, she has said she wants Donald Trump to play no role in the Republican Party going forward and would not support him for president if he ran again in 2024.

PFEIFFER: Has she explained why she's being so vocal about that, provoking her colleagues essentially?

DAVIS: Well, in the column she wrote in The Washington Post, she said that she believed that former President Trump and what he was doing was dangerous, that it was anti-democratic - small-case D - that it was unconstitutional, and that it risks provoking even more violence in the country if people didn't speak out against it.

PFEIFFER: If Liz Cheney is removed from her leadership post, who are the candidates to succeed her?

DAVIS: There's just one as of right now, and she appears to be on a glide path to take the position. It's Congresswoman Elise Stefanik. She's a Republican from upstate New York. The irony here is that she's a Republican who nominated Liz Cheney to this leadership position in 2018 and 2020. And now she's working to take it from her. But she's doing that with the blessing of at least one of the top leaders in the House. And Donald Trump has endorsed this leadership shake-up. So it appears likely that Elise Stefanik will be able to take this position if Republicans first successfully remove Liz Cheney from her leadership position, which is likely going to require a vote as early as next week.

PFEIFFER: Sue, you've covered Congress, I think at this point, almost two decades.

DAVIS: Yeah.

PFEIFFER: What is your perspective on what all of this says about Trump's power over congressional Republicans, especially leading into the midterm elections next year?

DAVIS: Well, there was this time after the January 6 attack on the Capitol that there was a conversation among Republicans, including the top Republican in the House, Kevin McCarthy, about what role Trump should have going forward. And it did seem to be a bit of a debate for a moment in time. I think this tells us that debate is settled. Most Republicans do not believe that they have a chance at winning the House majority in 2022 if they don't have Trump by their side, if they don't have his endorsement, and if they don't have him keeping his base enthused. They don't see any other way to do it. So this question of whether Trump should still be the leader of the party has been decided when it comes to House Republicans.

PFEIFFER: So in some sense - or maybe in a great sense, Cheney's fate really come - will symbolize where the Republican Party wants to go from here.

DAVIS: Yeah. I mean, it's a symbolic vote that's a bit more than just who should be at the leadership table. It really does come down to how they feel about Donald Trump and, frankly, how they feel about his efforts to continue to undermine the 2020 election. Most of them, if they don't want to outright criticize him, they're at least willing to stay silent about it.

PFEIFFER: Does Representative Liz Cheney have any support among rank-and-file House Republicans? I wonder if it's possible she could keep her job against the odds.

DAVIS: Yeah. I mean, this is tricky, and it's a good point. This is all going to be done by secret ballot. And I do think that that benefits Cheney. She survived a previous challenge and by a much greater margin than people were anticipating. But this time around, more people are out against her, again, including top leaders. She's had some support. Adam Kinzinger is a Republican from Illinois who also voted for impeachment. He's very much out in her favor. A lot of her support, too, also comes from places that, frankly, don't have a vote. People like Utah Senator Mitt Romney has come out in her defense. But he doesn't have a say in what the House Republicans do. So - and she's also not campaigning very hard for this job. She's not whipping it. She's not pushing back. I think she sees that her fate is in other people's hands, and she's going to force this vote to put people - I don't want to say on record because it'll be a secret ballot, but she's not going to make it easy for them to take her out.

PFEIFFER: Sue, do you have any idea what Representative Cheney would do if she is forced out of leadership?

DAVIS: This is a great question because she is someone who literally not that long ago was seen on a trajectory to much greater things in the Republican Party. She was someone who's been mentioned as potential presidential ticket material one day. She ruled out a Senate run a couple of years ago in a decision that was seen as her sort of investing in the House and maybe trying to chart a path to the Speakership.

You can never say it's over in politics. But as of right now, her political fortunes have certainly dimmed. She's been censured by the state Republican Party back in Wyoming, and she's facing a growing list of primary challengers for her seat. Donald Trump has already said he's going to campaign against her in the 2022 election. So her political future, if she wants one, is really unclear.

PFEIFFER: Have you talked with any Democrats, who control both houses of Congress, about what they think as they watch this? Do they feel like it hurts or helps them more?

DAVIS: Yeah. We're through the - one of these "Through the Looking-Glass" moments in politics where you have prominent Democrats defending Liz Cheney (laughter) is not actually something you see every day. Top Democrats, including Steny Hoyer, who's the majority leader, have defended Liz Cheney. They say she's fighting for the truth.

I also think they see a political opportunity here, too. What is good Republican primary politics doesn't necessarily mean it's going to be good general election politics. And Republicans sort of drawing the wagons around Trump, glossing over his efforts to undermine the election, trying to forget about the January 6 insurrection - you know, they're trying to win back the House majority in these kind of suburban districts, the exact kind of places where people were just repulsed by Trump's behavior over this, who rejected the party because of those kinds of actions. And doubling down behind that and certainly not trying to push back or even defend it could be politically risky for this longer-term goal of trying to grow the House majority.

PFEIFFER: That's NPR congressional correspondent Susan Davis. Sue, thanks for your reporting.

DAVIS: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.