WASHINGTON (AP) — House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy stepped up the pressure on No. 3 House Republican Liz Cheney on Tuesday, claiming rank-and-file concerns about “her ability to carry out her job” as she trades insults with former President Donald Trump.

McCarthy's comments on the Fox News Channel underscored the continued, if not growing, grip that the former president has on the House GOP. 

Rather than standing by Cheney — as he did during a failed effort to oust her in February — McCarthy essentially planted himself in the camp of her critics. His positioning with her detractors and their increasingly outspoken attacks suggest her hold on her leadership job is in renewed peril.

“I have heard from members concerned about her ability to carry out her job as conference chair, to carry out the message," said McCarthy, R-Calif. “We all need to be working as one if we’re able to win the majority. Remember, majorities are not given. They are earned.” 

McCarthy's remarks come with Republicans optimistic about their chances of winning back control of the House in the 2022 elections. The GOP believes it has a trove of issues to use against Democrats and wants the focus there, not on internal party rifts. 

But between now and next year's elections, the GOP must resolve the power struggle between the party's pro-Trump loyalists and those who believe he has damaged the party and country by repeatedly — and falsely — claiming that last November’s presidential election was stolen from him. 

The fight between Cheney and her critics stands as a microcosm of that battle. It also puts the GOP in the awkward position of seeking to oust its highest-ranking woman from her post at a time when the party is trying to erode Democrats' decisive advantage among female voters. 

McCarthy was interviewed a day after Trump mounted a fresh offensive on his assertions. Numerous state and federal courts and local election officials have unearthed no evidence of widespread fraud in the 2020 voting,

Trump critics have labeled his claims “The Big Lie,” and he issued a statement trying to claim that moniker himself.

“The Fraudulent Presidential Election of 2020 will be, from this day forth, known as THE BIG LIE!” he wrote.

But Cheney, R-Wyo., quickly fired back. She was among 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach Trump for his role in encouraging the Jan. 6 attack by his supporters on the U.S. Capitol, and she used Twitter on Monday to respond to Trump. 

“The 2020 presidential election was not stolen. Anyone who claims it was is spreading THE BIG LIE, turning their back on the rule of law, and poisoning our democratic system,” she wrote.

In response to Cheney, Trump issued a fresh statement reiterating his desire to see her defeated by another Republican in next year’s Wyoming GOP primary and claiming that people in her state “never liked her much.”

Underscoring the Republican rift, Cheney criticized Trump anew at a a donor event she attended over the weekend with the conservative American Enterprise Institute at Sea Island, Georgia, according to a person familiar with the situation and granted anonymity to discuss it.

“We can’t embrace the notion the election is stolen. It’s a poison in the bloodstream of our democracy,” Cheney said, in comments first reported by CNN. “We can’t whitewash what happened on Jan. 6 or perpetuate Trump’s big lie. It is a threat to democracy. What he did on Jan. 6 is a line that cannot be crossed.”

In another illustration of internal GOP tensions, Cheney and McCarthy have not appeared together at House Republican leadership news conferences for weeks.

Republicans believe Democrats will be vulnerable over President Joe Biden’s handling of the huge numbers of migrants trying to cross the Southwest border and for not prompting pandemic-shuttered schools and businesses to reopen faster. 

In February, conservatives unhappy over Cheney's confrontations with Trump overwhelmingly losta secret ballot vote of House Republicans aimed at ousting her from her leadership job, 145-61. 

But in recent weeks, Cheney's continued willingness to speak out against Trump has prompted fresh criticism of her. She is a daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney and like him is viewed as part of the GOP establishment, making her a natural target for the party's pro-Trump conservatives. 

McCarthy has told reporters that during the House GOP's closed-door February meeting that resulted in Cheney keeping her job, he had defended her.

“People can have differences of opinion. That’s what you can have a discussion about. Liz has a right to vote her conscience,” McCarthy said then. 

However, McCarthy struck a completely different tone on Tuesday. He said GOP lawmakers are concerned about the party's messaging, which is part of the No. 3 leader's job.

“What’s our best step forward, that we could all work together instead of attacking one another,” McCarthy said. 

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