Political notebook: U.S. Rep. Burchett claims McCarthy elbowed him in kidney

U.S. Rep. Tim Burchett, R-Knoxville, speaks with reporters outside a House Republican closed-door caucus on Capitol Hill on Oct. 11 in Washington.  (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
U.S. Rep. Tim Burchett, R-Knoxville, speaks with reporters outside a House Republican closed-door caucus on Capitol Hill on Oct. 11 in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

NASHVILLE — It's wasn't like U.S. Rep. Tim Burchett, R-Knoxville, and former House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-California, were the best of buds anyway.

After all, the House member from Knoxville and seven of his GOP colleagues along with 208 Democrats voted Oct. 3 to oust McCarthy as speaker, throwing the chamber into chaos for weeks. Burchett said at the time he was already considering bouncing McCarthy. But the tipping point, he alleged, was when McCarthy mocked him during a phone call in which Burchett said he was leaning toward ouster but praying over it.

The then-speaker denied mocking Burchett, saying he simply wanted to know why the Tennessean wanted to unseat him.

(READ MORE: Burchett claims McCarthy mocked him for praying over move to oust the speaker)

Last week, a narrow and crowded Capitol hallway became the latest flash point for the duo. As Burchett was being interviewed by an NPR reporter, The Tennessean said McCarthy had just given him a hard elbow while coming through a crowded Capitol hallway.

"Sorry Kevin, didn't mean to — why did you elbow me in the back, Kevin? Hey Kevin, you got any guts? Jerk," Burchett said on the audio recording as McCarthy apparently continued walking. "You're pathetic, you're so pathetic. What a jerk. You need security, Kevin."

Burchett then elaborated to the reporter.

"It was a clean shot to the kidneys," Burchett said. "You don't expect a guy who was at one time three steps away from the White House to hit you with a sucker punch in the hallway."

McCarthy disputed Burchett's account.

"No, I would not elbow," the former speaker told reporters later. "I would not hit him in a kidney. I did not hit the guy, I did not kidney punch him. I did not do anything like that. No."

Later the same day, a Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee hearing room nearly became the arena for a mixed-martial arts fight as an ongoing argument escalated between Sen. Markwayne Mullin, R-Oklahoma, and Teamsters Union President Sean O'Brien, who was testifying.

Mullen, a former mixed martial arts fighter, challenged O'Brien to a fight, and read aloud O'Brien's tweets calling him a clown and a fraud.

Committee Chair Bernie Sanders, an independent from Vermont, sought to calm things down, but they continued for a while. But no, there were no punches, kicks or bites.

Paris trip

As Gov. Bill Lee wrapped up his annual public budget meetings with agency chiefs last week, the governor was quizzed by reporters about expenses for his six-day economic development trip in June to France and Italy to promote the state at the Paris Air Show and in other meetings.

The Tennessean obtained records of the trip's costs. The trip included the governor, six state employees, including state Economic and Community Development Commissioner Stuart McWhorter, staffers from McWhorter's department as well as first lady Maria Lee, the wife of an Economic and Community Development official and two security staffers. Price tag: at least $117,000.

In Paris, the newspaper reported, they stayed in a five-star luxury hotel between the Arc de Triomphe and Eiffel Tower. Rooms at the hotel cost $804 per night. They dined at a swanky Michelin-reviewed restaurant. After leaving Paris, the group went to Bologna, Italy, as part of the promotion effort. There they stayed at the Grand Hotel Majestic, another five-star hotel.

The newspaper said the governor's records counsel did not provide expense records disclosing cost of accommodations in Paris, rental vehicles noted on trip itineraries or any food or per diem reimbursements.

The Tennessean reported the tab for Lee and the first lady was more than $26,229, noting that was only for the airfare and the Bologna hotel.

French and Italian businesses have a nearly $2 billion foreign direct investment in Tennessee, employing more than 13,500 Tennesseans, the newspaper reported. Lee was one of 10 U.S. governors attending the Paris Air Show, a trade fair and air show held in odd-numbered years. It was Lee's first trip to the air show since the start of the pandemic in 2019.

"You know," Lee told reporters as budget hearings wrapped, "our state has a long history, decades of governors taking trips to foreign countries to recruit those businesses investing to bring hundreds of millions of dollars of capital investment and thousands of jobs into our state. That's something that's been going on some 40 years in our state.

"We understand how valuable that is," the Republican governor added. "There were actually 10 governors on the same trip I was, with their staffs, that we compete with for those thousands of jobs and hundreds of millions of dollars worth in investment. It's very important that governors do that."

Lee said Tennessee as a state has the second-largest direct investment from Japan in the United States.

"As you have seen, foreign direct investment from countries all over Europe and Asia over the past 10 years ... have created thousands of opportunities," Lee said. "At the end of the day, is that trip an investment worth making when it changes the lives of thousands of Tennesseans by giving them a job?

"It absolutely is worth doing, and we'll continue to make them," Lee said.

Birth control

Tennessee state Sen. Charlane Oliver, D-Nashville, and Rep. Gloria Johnson, D-Knoxville, said they plan to file legislation in the 2024 legislative session to protect access to birth control in a post-Roe legal landscape.

The Tennessee Contraceptive Freedom Act seeks to preserve access to contraception, including condoms, birth control pills and emergency contraception.

In a release, Oliver called it the "next chapter in our fight" to rebuild and secure personal reproductive freedom for Tennesseans.

"This legislation embodies our commitment to make sure that every Tennessean has the freedom to start a family — or not — when they're ready, on their own terms and without government interference," Oliver said.

Johnson, a 2024 U.S. Senate candidate, called access to contraception a cornerstone of women's health and equality.

(READ MORE: Political Notebook: Poll shows Marsha Blackburn with big lead over Gloria Johnson in Tennessee US Senate race)

"Some politicians believe that they have the right to make health care decisions that should rightfully be made by the patient and their physician," Johnson stated. "Some politicians believe it is up to the government to decide what kind of birth control, if any, you can use.

"I simply believe in the freedom for Tennesseans to make their own decisions based on their own faith and values, in consultation with their physician and those they love," she continued. "We cannot afford to leave such a fundamental right to the whims of extremist legislators. With this legislation, we have a chance to protect the right to contraception for all Tennesseans."

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-285-9480.

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