WASHINGTON — The top Republican in the House on Sunday publicly endorsed the ouster of Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., from the party’s leadership team, paving the way for Cheney’s removal as early as this week and sending a clear message that allegiance to former president Donald Trump is a requirement to hold power in the Republican Party.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., threw his support behind Rep. Elise Stefanik of New York to become the new Republican conference chair, the No. 3 job in GOP leadership, backing a onetime centrist who emerged over the past year as a staunch defender of Trump who helped spread his false claims of election fraud.

McCarthy avoided mentioning Cheney by name during his appearance on Fox News’s “Sunday Morning Futures” when asked about the campaign to oust Cheney over her dogged efforts to denounce Trump’s baseless claims that the 2020 election was stolen.

“Any member can take whatever position they believe in. … What we’re talking about is a position in leadership,” McCarthy said, adding: “As conference chair, you have one of the most critical jobs as a messenger going forward.”

Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y., questions a witness during the impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump on Nov. 15, 2019. Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post

Cheney has accused Trump and others who have spread the election falsehoods of “turning their back on the rule of law, and poisoning our democratic system.” She survived a previous vote among fellow Republicans in the wake of her outspoken support for Trump’s impeachment after the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol but has refused to bend to the will of McCarthy and others who have since affirmed their loyalty to Trump.

McCarthy on Sunday said another vote on Cheney was imminent. It could come as early as Wednesday, when the House returns to session and the Republican conference is scheduled to meet.

It was the first time that McCarthy had officially endorsed Stefanik as a replacement for Cheney, though Axios reported last week that the Republican leader had said he had “had it” with Cheney during an off-air conversation with Fox News’s Steve Doocy that was caught on a live microphone.

McCarthy’s official support of Cheney’s removal is the latest sign of how the GOP is purging from its leadership anyone seen as opponents of Trump, solidifying the former president’s grip on the party. The Washington Post reported that the National Republican Congressional Committee, in recent polling presentations to its members, had left out key polling data about Trump’s weakness in some districts, indicating a willingness to minimize damage the former president could do to the party. Instead, fealty to Trump – and to his baseless assertions that the election was stolen – has become the defining loyalty test for Republicans.

Few actions would symbolize that situation more than replacing Cheney with Stefanik in party leadership.

Where Stefanik has often broken with the party line, at least in the past, Cheney has notched a fiercely conservative voting record. In 2017, Stefanik broke with the GOP to vote against Trump’s tax plan.

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, a moderate Republican who has criticized Trump, said Sunday that he was dismayed by the extent to which the party is now built around support for the former president.

“It just bothers me that you have to swear fealty to the ‘dear leader’ or you get kicked out of the party,” Hogan said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “It just doesn’t make any sense.”

Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., who has been one of the few Republican lawmakers to speak out against Trump, said McCarthy was responsible for Trump’s ability to remain all-powerful in the GOP, even after losing his re-election bid.

Liz Cheney

U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo. Scott Applewhite/AssociatedPress file

On CBS’s “Face the Nation,” Kinzinger argued that Trump had been “done” and relegated to “sulking away at Mar-a-Lago” after Jan. 6, when a pro-Trump mob overran the U.S. Capitol in a violent insurrection. Immediately afterward, McCarthy told his House colleagues that Trump “bears responsibility” for the Capitol attack, and he floated the idea of censuring Trump, though he did not support his impeachment.

Two weeks later, McCarthy met with Trump in Florida, where they discussed taking back the House in 2022. Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La., did the same in early February. Their decision to do so – along with the fundraising implications for others in the party – helped restore relevance to the former president, Kinzinger said.

“They put the paddles on Donald Trump and resurrected him in the party, and everybody after that became scared to death of who Donald Trump was again,” Kinzinger said. “And that’s what empowered him. And everybody [who dared criticize Trump] went quiet.”

Kinzinger, who months ago started a PAC to challenge his party’s embrace of Trump, has increasingly found himself in the minority within the GOP. On Sunday, he likened the Republican Party to the Titanic “in the middle of this slow sink,” with Trump “running around trying to find women’s clothing and get on the first lifeboat.”

“As a party, we have to have an internal look and a full accounting as to what led to Jan. 6,” Kinzinger said. “There’s a few of us that are just saying, ‘Guys, this is not good, not just for the future of the party, but this is not good for the future of this country.’ ”

Within the most ardently pro-Trump wing of the GOP, the animosity toward Cheney and other Republicans who have criticized Trump was on full display over the weekend, at an “America First” rally in central Florida hosted by Reps. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., and Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga. For more than an hour Friday, they mocked Democrats and rallied the crowd against so-called “Republicans in name only” who go against Trump and his agenda.

“It’s the establishment against the rest of us,” Gaetz said then.

Polls show that support for Trump – and his election falsehoods – is deep and broad in the Republican electorate. Across the country, local and state party organizations have sided with the former president and moved to censure or otherwise punish officials who have attacked Trump. Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, a vocal Trump critic, was booed by a Republican audience in his home state.

Cheney’s probable loss of her leadership role drew a sympathizer from across the aisle: House Majority Whip James Clyburn, D-S.C.

“I don’t agree with Liz on much politically, but, you know, that’s how we grow as a country. This whole thing that everybody ought to be marching in lockstep, that is what leads people to destruction,” Clyburn said on CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday. “I want to see a strong Republican Party. My parents were Republicans, and I would love to see this party honor them.”

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