Feeling the Vern

Rep. Vern Buchanan
Rep. Vern Buchanan was livid after losing his bid to run the House Ways & Means Committee—a perceived betrayal by the new speaker. Photo: Bill Clark/Getty Images
Tara Palmeri
January 17, 2023

As I wrote last week, Republicans have been fixated on whether 71-year-old Rep. Vern Buchanan might retire from Congress after losing the House Ways & Means chairmanship to the 42-year-old Speaker’s pet Jason Smith, potentially reducing Kevin McCarthy’s margin of error from four votes to three to pass critical partisan legislation. (If McCarthy somehow loses fabulist George Santos, too, he could be held hostage by as few as two members of his already fractious House conference.) Vern’s people say he won’t retire (despite the rumblings on the Hill), but they didn’t deny that he was mighty pissed to be passed over as the most senior person on the Ways & Means committee by Smith, a member who was fifth in line.

Just how angry was he? Well, a source on the House floor during the vote told me that while McCarthy was gaveling down the votes, Buchanan walked up to McCarthy and said, “You fucked me, I know it was you, you whipped against me.” He then proceeded to chew out McCarthy’s deputy chief of staff for floor operations, John Leganski. It was shocking to see such fury from Buchanan, who’s known for being mild mannered. Indeed, I heard that the tirade was so heated that the Speaker’s security detail stepped in with a light touch. (McCarthy’s spokesperson Matt Sparks disputed this detail saying, “at no point did anyone have to step in.” A spokesperson for Buchanan declined to comment.)

It couldn’t have been a surprise that Buchanan, who is independently wealthy and a key donor whisperer, isn’t taking the snub lightly. “Vern put out more money in fundraising than anyone else, and he wanted that job,” said a source. Another noted that the congressman had raised more than $4.1 million for the National Republican Congressional Committee and threw together a last minute fundraiser at his house—at McCarthy’s request—for Anna Paulina Luna, with special guest Newt Gingrich. “But Smith is a McCarthy crony,” this person said.

Calling Smith a McCarthy crony may be a bit unfair, but as I reported, he was seen as an important go-between during the Speaker vote with Steve Scalise, when the latter was perceived as not lifting a finger for McCarthy. This job may have imparted some elevated status: Smith was one of the few members who could technically run for two chairmanships, Ways & Means and Budget. The drama has generated chatter about whether Buchanan was somehow deemed insufficiently loyal to McCarthy and too close to Scalise.

The Washington Post’s Paul Kane has a good story about the brewing discontent among the old guard over the perceived leapfrogging. There’s certainly a sense of distrust that this is all a part of McCarthy’s double dealing with the House Freedom Cause and payback for allies who helped him win back the Speakership. After all, McCarthy did put off the contested committee races, which are usually sorted out following the election, until after he won the gavel.