WASHINGTON — Such are the fractures in the country, between the political parties and inside the Republican Party itself, that one time-honored specialty of Washington — memorializing and coming together over national trauma — isn’t what it used to be.
Friday’s moment of silence at the Capitol to contemplate the Jan. 6, 2021, assault on it was expected to draw mostly Democrats.
At the White House, few Republicans were expected for a ceremony at which President Joe Biden will award Presidential Citizens Medals to a dozen state and local officials, election workers and police officers for their “exemplary deeds of service for their country or their fellow citizens” in upholding the results of the 2020 election and fighting back the Capitol mob.
It’s all a far cry from Sept. 11, 2001, when lawmakers who had frantically evacuated the Capitol during the terrorist attack gathered there later in the day in a moment of silence and broke out in “God Bless America,” Republicans and Democrats shoulder to shoulder.
“They stood shaken and tearful on the steps of the Capitol, their love of nation and all that it symbolizes plain for the world to see,” an Australian newspaper reported in a passage reflected now in the House’s official history.
Today, the world sees a different picture, one of turmoil in American democracy coming from within the institution that insurrectionists overran two years ago.
The nation’s legislative branch is again paralyzed — not by violence this time but by a tortuous struggle among Republicans over who should lead them, and the House itself, as speaker.
To be sure, a resolution to the immediate crisis may be near as the GOP leadership continues negotiations to appease its hard-right flank, but questions loom about the chamber’s ability to manage even the most essential legislation, such as funding the government and meeting the nation’s debt obligations.
Biden, in his afternoon remarks, will tell stories of heroism, whether in the face of a violent Capitol mob or a vehement horde of Donald Trump-inspired agitators who threatened election workers or otherwise sought to overturn the results. He will appeal for unity.
But the Democratic president can’t ignore the warning signs that it could happen again.
In the midterms, candidates who denied the outcome of 2020’s free and fair election were defeated for many pivotal statewide positions overseeing elections in battleground states, as were a number of election deniers seeking seats in Congress.
Yet many of the lawmakers who brought baseless claims of election fraud or excused the violence on Jan. 6 continue to serve and are newly empowered.
Trump’s 2024 candidacy has been slow off the starting blocks, but his war chest is full and some would-be rivals for the Republican presidential nomination have channeled his false claims about the 2020 race.
As well, several lawmakers who echoed his lies about a stolen election at the time are central in the effort to derail Rep. Kevin McCarthy’s ascension to speaker — unswayed by Trump’s appeals from afar to support him and end the fight.
The protracted struggle leaves the House leaderless, unable to pass bills and powerless to do much more than hold vote after vote for speaker until a majority is reached. Everything from national security briefings to helping their constituents navigate the federal bureaucracy are on pause because the members-elect can’t yet take their oath of office.
Some Democrats see a throughline from Jan. 6.
The chaos of the speaker’s election “is about destruction of an institution in a different way,” said Democratic Rep. Pramila Jayapal of Washington, one of the lawmakers who fled the rioters two years ago.
Then, the insurrectionists trapped some lawmakers in the House chamber but never breached it. They held up national business for hours that day.
Now some are feeling trapped in the same chamber by the repeated, fruitless votes for speaker — 11 votes so far — and House business is held up for this week and counting.
“The stream of continuity here is extremism, elements of Trumpism, norms don’t matter,” says Democratic Rep. Mike Quigley of Illinois. “It’s not about governing, it’s about pontificating and advocating an extremist point of view.”
Democratic Rep. Annie Kuster of New Hampshire said, “It is a very small minority who want to throw this institution into chaos.”
After the unsatisfying midterm election for Trump allies, the House committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack wrapped up its work with a recommendation to the Justice Department to prosecute the former president. A special counsel and ultimately Attorney General Merrick Garland will now decide whether to indict him.
While the congressional investigations have ended, the criminal cases are still very much continuing, both for the 950 arrested and charged in the violent attack and for Trump and his associates who remain under investigation. The second seditious conspiracy trial begins this week, for members of the far-right Proud Boys.
In a measured but significant step, Congress in December amended the Electoral Count Act to limit the role of the vice president in counting electoral votes, to make it harder for individual lawmakers to mount objections to properly certified election results and to eliminate “fake electors” like those deployed by Trump allies in a bid to overturn his defeat to Biden.
After all that, Biden, who made it a tentpole of his agenda to prove to the world that democracies can deliver for their citizens, had dared hope that this was “the first time we’re really getting through the whole issue relating to Jan. 6. Things are settling out.”
But then came the fight for speaker, rare in the annals of Congress.
“And now, for the first time in 100 years, we can’t move?” Biden said earlier this week. “It’s not a good look. It’s not a good thing.”
“Look,” he went on, “how do you think it looks to the rest of the world?”
Will Rogers’ durable joke — “I am not a member of any organized political party. I am a Democrat” — now looks dated and out of place. Democrats voted unanimously for their new House leader, Rep. Hakeem Jeffries of New York, in a seamless transition from Nancy Pelosi.
Two years after Jan. 6 and Trump’s subsequent departure, Republicans, the party for which standing in line the longest usually meant victory, are now the party of factions and disorder.