WASHINGTON (AP) -- Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell is criticizing the Republican National Committee for censuring two House GOP lawmakers investigating the "violent insurrection" on Jan. 6, 2021, saying it's not the party's job to police the views of lawmakers.
As former President Donald Trump has downplayed the attack by his supporters last year -- the worst attack against the Capitol in two centuries -- the RNC last week took a voice vote to approve censuring Reps. Liz Cheney of Wyoming and Adam Kinzinger of Illinois at the party's winter meeting in Salt Lake City. The two Republicans sit on a Democrat-led House committee that is aggressively investigating the siege and has subpoenaed many in the former president's inner circle.
The RNC resolution censuring Cheney and Kinzinger accused the House panel of leading a "persecution of ordinary citizens engaged in legitimate political discourse" -- words that drew outrage from Democrats and firm pushback from several GOP senators. The rioters who broke into the Capitol through windows and doors brutally beat law enforcement officers and interrupted the certification of President Joe Biden's victory over Trump.
"It was a violent insurrection for the purpose of trying to prevent the peaceful transfer of power after a legitimately certified election from one administration to the next," McConnell said Tuesday. He said he still has confidence in RNC Chair Ronna McDaniel, but "the issue is whether or not the RNC should be sort of singling out members of our party who may have different views than the majority. That's not the job of the RNC."
The dispute is the latest tug of war within the party over issues that McConnell and others see as politically beneficial and would prefer to talk about in an election year – inflation, for example -- versus the discourse over the insurrection and Trump's election lies.
The rioters who broke in to the Capitol were repeating Trump's false claims of widespread voter fraud and a stolen win, even after election officials and courts across the country repeatedly dismissed those claims. McConnell and his closest allies have said for months that they want to look forward to November 2022, when they have a chance of taking back the Senate, and not back to January 2021.
Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas said Monday that the RNC has said it wants the party to be unified, "and that was not a unifying action." Alabama Sen. Richard Shelby said he believes the GOP should be a "big tent." Republican Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Mitt Romney of Utah both contacted McDaniel to discuss the censure.
Romney, who is McDaniel's uncle, told reporters that it "could not have been a more inappropriate" message from the party.
"Anything that my party does that comes across as being stupid is not going to help us," he said.
Maine Sen. Susan Collins said the rioters who "broke windows and breached the Capitol were not engaged in legitimate political discourse, and to say otherwise is absurd."
Collins said the GOP started out the year with an advantage on issues that could decide the election, but "every moment that is spent re-litigating a lost election or defending those who have been convicted of criminal behavior moves us further away from the goal of victory this fall."
The censure was approved last week after an RNC subcommittee watered down a resolution that had recommended expelling the pair from the party. McDaniel denied that the "legitimate political discourse" wording in the censure resolution was referring to the violent attack on the Capitol and said it had to do with other actions taken by the House committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection. But the resolution drew no such distinction.
Cheney said Monday that she had been receiving a "tremendous amount of support" in the wake of the censure vote. "I think every American who watched the video of that attack and who watched that attack unfold knows that it was really shameful to suggest that that what happened that day might be legitimate political discourse," she said.
McConnell has maintained his strong criticism of Trump over the insurrection, though he voted to acquit the former president after the House voted to impeach him one week after the attack. In a speech after that vote, McConnell said "there is no question that President Trump is practically and morally responsible for provoking the events of that day," and that "a mob was assaulting the Capitol in his name. These criminals were carrying his banners, hanging his flags, and screaming their loyalty to him."
His use of the word "insurrection" -- the act of rising up against established authority -- is significant. Many in his party have insisted that it was not an insurrection, downplaying the attack or trying to portray it as a peaceful protest.
Still, the GOP leader doesn't often mention Jan. 6 and did not participate in remembrance ceremonies on the anniversary of the attack last month. He has emphasized to his conference that they should focus on the future and issues that will help them win back the Senate.
Similarly, former Vice President Mike Pence has mostly avoided talking about the insurrection, even though he was in the building as it happened and some rioters were calling for his death. But on Friday, he addressed Trump's repeated criticism that he could have "overturned" the election in his ceremonial role overseeing the electoral count.
"President Trump is wrong," Pence said to a gathering of the conservative Federalist Society. "I had no right to overturn the election."
While few Republicans openly defended the RNC's move, several said it was the party's prerogative to take the vote.
"The RNC has any right to take any action and the position that I have is that you're ultimately held accountable to voters in your district," said New York Rep. Elise Stefanik, the No. 3 Republican in the House. "We're going to hear the feedback and the views of voters pretty quickly here this year."
Texas Sen. Ted Cruz said Cheney and Kinzinger's role on the Jan. 6 panel is "not helpful." Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., who along with Cruz led objections to the certification of Biden's victory on Jan. 6, said it is a distraction to have Republicans in Washington like McConnell "bashing other Republicans."
"If you come to the state of Missouri and talk to Republicans, people who are going to be voting in our primary, they probably agree with what the RNC did," Hawley said.