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House Democrats erupt in protests over indirect sanction of Rep. Omar for alleged anti-Semitism

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 3/6/2019 Mike DeBonis, Rachael Bade
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House Democrats erupted in fury Wednesday, challenging leaders over indirectly sanctioning freshman Rep. Ilhan Omar for alleged anti-Semitic remarks amid an outcry over party inaction to President Trump’s divisive comments on race.

In a closed-door session, Democrats protested plans to vote this week on a resolution condemning religious hatred, a measure prompted by Omar’s comments last week suggesting supporters of Israel have “allegiance to a foreign country.”

The remarks have exploded into a larger debate over how Congress should respond to individual racial and religious grievances. It also touched off Democratic concerns that the splintering was overshadowing the newfound majority’s agenda, with Republicans seeking to capi­tal­ize politically on the divide.

As Democrats debated whether to vote on the resolution, Trump tweeted Wednesday afternoon, “It is shameful that House Democrats won’t take a stronger stand against Anti-Semitism in their conference. Anti-Semitism has fueled atrocities throughout history and it’s inconceivable they will not act to condemn it!”

House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) said Wednesday there may not be a vote this week on any resolution. “We’re discussing what is the best way to address it,” he said. The chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep. Eliot L. Engel (D-N.Y.), was taking the lead in crafting a resolution.

Many of those speaking out Wednesday were members of the Congressional Black Caucus, who bristled at the notion that Omar (Minn.) would be targeted for a rebuke — even an indirect one, as Democratic leaders had planned — while lawmakers remain silent about Republican behavior, especially that of Trump.

“I think there’s a big rise in anti-Semitism and racism, and that’s a bigger conversation we need to be having.” said Rep. Cedric L. Richmond (D-La.). “But it starts at 1600 Pennsylvania. It doesn’t start with one member out of 435 members of Congress.”

Trump words over the years were particularly galling to members of the CBC, with the president’s equivocating after the racial attack in Charlottesville, his profane description of third-world countries and his criticism of black athletes.

Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., arrives at the House Education and Labor Committee during a bill markup, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, March 6, 2019. Omar stirred controversy last week saying that Israel's supporters are pushing U.S. lawmakers to take a pledge of "allegiance to a foreign country." Omar is not apologizing for that remark, and progressives are supporting her. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite) © ASSOCIATED PRESS Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., arrives at the House Education and Labor Committee during a bill markup, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, March 6, 2019. Omar stirred controversy last week saying that Israel's supporters are pushing U.S. lawmakers to take a pledge of "allegiance to a foreign country." Omar is not apologizing for that remark, and progressives are supporting her. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Inside the meeting, according to multiple people present, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) tried to keep her caucus focused on a planned Friday vote on a sweeping campaign and elections reform bill. She acknowledged “internal issues,” according to notes taken by a Democratic aide present, and urged members not to “question the motivations of our colleagues.”

“You can disagree wholeheartedly, but do not question their patriotism or their loyalty to our country in any way, and that holds for the Republicans as well,” she said.

Walking into the meeting, Pelosi said the Omar situation “would be resolved” and chastised the news media.

“I think you make more of it than there is . . . to be very honest with you — the press loves to foment unease in the Democratic Party but we are very united” about the House Democratic agenda, she said.

Pelosi made a similar point inside the room, said the aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private discussions.

But moments later, multiple House members stood up to challenge the decision — endorsed by Pelosi and the rest of the House Democratic leadership — to move forward with a resolution condemning religious hatred. Initially the measure targeted only anti-Semitism, with some Democrats pushing for a direct rebuke of Omar, but by Tuesday night — facing backlash from members not on board with the plan — leaders decided to expand it to include anti-Muslim bias.

On Wednesday morning, it was unclear whether there was consensus around passing any sort of legislation at all.

Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-N.J.) was among the first members to speak up in the meeting, asking, “Why are we doing this?” She said afterward any resolution would be “redundant and unnecessary.”

“We’ve individually and collectively already responded to the fact that we oppose all ‘-isms’ that do not treat people in this country fairly and justly,” she said. “To continue to engage in this discussion is simply an opportunity to give both the media and Republicans distractions from our agenda. We’ve got important work to do.”

Other members, including Richmond, said it was unfair that the caucus would take action against one of its own members while other GOP lawmakers have uttered offensive remarks with no retribution. This week, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) accused Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) of anti-Semitism for a tweet referring to Tom Steyer, a Democratic donor of Jewish descent as “Tom $teyer,” and Richmond and several other members mentioned Trump.

“We need to have equity in our outrage,” said Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.), who after the meeting said she was focused on “the occupant of this White House who is seeding every form of hate, emboldening it with racist rhetoric and policies. That is who we all need to be focused on, and this is a distraction.”

Omar attended Wednesday’s meeting, according to people present, but did not speak.

Pelosi made reference to an episode last week where a sign was posted at an event hosted by the West Virginia Republican Party falsely linking Omar with the 9/11 attacks: “That is outside the circle of official or civilized behavior on their part, and we cannot give them grist for it.”

But other lawmakers, including a group of Jewish members who pushed to pass the resolution focused on anti-Semitism, remain convinced that the House needs to act in response to Omar’s remarks. Twice in the previous two months, Omar has apologized for past remarks perceived as anti-Semitic, but she has publicly defended the most recent episode as a valid criticism of Israel’s influence in American politics.

Rep. Ted Deutch (D-Fla.), who is among the Jewish members involved in crafting the initial resolution, rose to defend the resolution and, according to one member present, grew emotional. He said his colleagues needed to understand that these sort of words were hurtful to people like himself who had dealt with them all their lives.

Hanging over the internal debate among Democrats is political pressure from Republicans eager to position their party as the more reliable ally of Israel — and a more appealing choice for Jewish voters who have long trended Democratic.

GOP leaders accused Democrats Wednesday of tolerating anti-Semitism by refusing to remove Omar from the House Foreign Affairs Committee, which has jurisdiction of the U.S.-Israel relationship.

“They should stop empowering her disgusting hatred before it turns into horror,” said Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wy.), the House Republican Conference chairwoman.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) repeatedly compared the Democrats’ turmoil to the quick moves Republicans took to condemn Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), who made public comments questioning whether white supremacy is offensive, including a decision to strip him of committee assignments.

“It should not be tough to stand up against this type of talk,” McCarthy said, noting that the House adopted GOP-proposed language condemning anti-Semitism last month after a previous controversy involving Omar. “I’m just wondering, within their conference, if they’re willing to lead.”

For Democrats, the internal divide over how to handle Omar’s statements has been exacerbated by members targeting each other on Twitter, where much of the public debate has played out — both among Democrats and between members of the two parties.

At one point during the meeting, Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), a close Pelosi ally, pleaded with Democrats: “Everyone stop tweeting!”

Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chair Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) said afterward that by fighting publicly, Democrats were playing into GOP hands.

“We are now in the majority, and Republicans have an intent to divide us whenever they can,” she said, adding that her colleagues needed to find “a process where these things can play out in private and not in front of everybody.”

Rep. Juan Vargas (D-Calif.) was targeted on Twitter Tuesday by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), for saying that questioning the U.S.-Israel relationship should be out of bounds.

Vargas on Wednesday brushed off the online clash: “She could have come down the hall and asked me what my opinion is. That would have been fine,” he said, adding, “We have a very different opinion here, I believe. To question someone’s loyalty because they’re Jewish, I think, is terrible. It’s something that we shouldn’t question at all.”

mike.debonis@washpost.com

rachael.bade@washpost.com

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