NASHVILLE — U.S. Rep. Tim Burchett, R-Knoxville, was already struggling publicly over whether to support then-Republican House Speaker Kevin McCarthy against an effort by a handful of GOP hardliners to oust the speaker this week.
But the Knoxville lawmaker said his decision to join the effort was "sealed" following a telephone call from McCarthy in which Burchett felt McCarthy "mocked" him for publicly indicating he was leaning toward ouster and was praying over it.
"He just basically said something I thought belittled me and my belief system," Burchett told CNN. "That pretty much sealed that with me right there. I thought that showed the character of the man. I wanted to listen to him, I was going to talk to him, I wanted to do it a long time ago."
Burchett was among eight Republican House members voting for a motion by McCarthy critic Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., to vacate the chair and oust McCarthy. All 208 of the chamber's Democrats voted for the motion, bouncing McCarthy from the position he had won in January with Burchett's support.
"It was just the fact that I publicly stated on your station this morning that I was praying about it, that I had two paths to go. I could go with my friend or go with my conscience. And I was praying that God would tell what to do, which he does," Burchett said, adding the Burchetts are "praying people" and he has prayed for McCarthy as well as President Joe Biden.
"As a Christian, that is what I'm supposed to do," Burchett said. "But when someone mocks me like that and mocks my religion and, honestly, the Bible's pretty clear about God being mocked. That's what sealed it right there for me."
Burchett did not provide specific details of McCarthy's comments.
Following his ouster, McCarthy told Capitol Hill reporters Tuesday he had called Burchett after reading the lawmaker's previous comments indicating he was undecided about whether to back or oppose him and leaning toward ousting him.
"I said, 'Tim, I read your quote, you said you're gonna pray about it, I wanted to talk to you about it.' And somehow he construes that — I'm a Christian, I'm not going to offend somebody — I simply read his quote back. I thought there was still an opening, and I wanted to talk to him about it," The Hill news site reported the former speaker telling reporters.
In January, Burchett supported McCarthy's bid for speaker through 15 rounds of voting as hard-right Republicans unsuccessfully offered up candidate after candidate.
In the days leading up to the ouster vote, Burchett, a former Knox County mayor who previously served in the Tennessee House and Senate, publicly listed a number of concerns. Among them was the House's direction under McCarthy. They included McCarthy and House Republicans striking a deal with Biden and House Democrats to approve a debt ceiling and budget cuts package last week and avoid a debt crisis.
Burchett told Capitol reporters after McCarthy's ouster that the speaker had said "something condescending about my religious beliefs, and I just thought, 'I don't need that.' And that answered my question right there, the quality and the character there," The Hill news site reported.
"When he talked to me, it could have been in a different tone, different attitude," he said. "And to me, it just disappointed me."
On Wednesday, the Knoxville lawmaker went on the "Fox and Friends" program, where he faced a grilling from co-host Brian Kilmeade.
"Congressman, you were one of the eight," Kilmeade said. "So Speaker McCarthy had 96% approval rating (votes among GOP lawmakers). But that wasn't good enough for you. Do you feel good about your vote?"
"I don't work for the people in Congress. I work for the people of the 2nd District in Tennessee," Burchett fired back. "And overwhelmingly, the folks are tired of the fact that we take in $5 trillion and we spend $7 trillion. That leadership continues to pass these continuation resolutions."
The latest continuing resolution will, for the next six weeks, keep government agencies' funding at levels they were initially funded in 2023. Millions of federal employees, contractors and service members faced potential furloughs or delayed paychecks.
Burchett said among other things he felt it was a "failure of leadership" for not having worked on the dozen appropriations bills funding government instead of taking the customary August recess.
"He's the speaker, and ultimately the buck stops somewhere," Burchett said.
Kilmeade said the ouster was a first in the nation's history.
"So you're upset about six weeks in the summer. Did you call during the summer and say, 'Can we get back to work?'"
Replied Burchett, "I'm also upset about the fact we're $33 trillion in debt."
Kilmeade questioned whether that was McCarthy's fault.
"It could be," Burchett said. "He needs to accept some responsibility."
U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, a Southeast Tennessee Republican who sided with McCarthy and voted against his ouster, weighed in on social media Wednesday.
"I thank @SpeakerMcCarthy for his strong leadership over the last nine months," Fleischmann wrote. "@HouseGOP has proven we can deliver for the American people, and we must continue. I urge my colleagues to come together and quickly elect a new Speaker so we can continue our important work."