Democrats engineered a House vote broadly condemning hatred on Thursday in an attempt to move past alleged anti-Semitic comments by a freshman Muslim congresswoman – a battle that has torn the party apart and stymied attempts to present a unified agenda.
The 407-to-23 vote capped days of frustration and anger over the comments by Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., that have overshadowed Democratic policies – both legislation and investigations of President Donald Trump – and raised questions about whether Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., could keep her fractious caucus together.
Debates over climate change, health care and how the government spends money loom for the House Democratic majority – and are likely to cause fierce internal strife in the coming months.
Even crafting the generic resolution against bigotry proved difficult for Democrats on Thursday, after some groups objected to being omitted from an initial version. The resolution was revised shortly before the vote to add Latinos, Asian-Americans and LGBT people to a list of groups subject to hate.
The resolution condemned anti-Semitism and discrimination against Muslims in equal measure, a shift from a draft circulated Monday that rebuked only anti-Semitism. Neither mentioned Omar nor her comments specifically.
“It’s not about her,” Pelosi said of Omar at a news conference. “It’s about these forms of hatred.”
Republicans mocked the Democrats and their internal struggles in trying to respond to Omar. Rep. Douglas Collins, R-Ga., described the resolution as something that “all of us should’ve learned in kindergarten: Be nice.”
“How long does it take to figure out, just don’t hate? How many pages does it take to cite ill and evil? Evil is evil,” Collins said.
On the vote, Democrats were unified, but Republicans splintered. Reps. Lee Zeldin of New York and Liz Cheney of Wyoming, the GOP conference chairwoman, said the resolution should have dealt only with anti-Semitism. Rep. Peter King of New York and others objected to language dealing with law enforcement profiling, and Rep. Mo Brooks of Alabama said he was “shocked” that the measure “refused to similarly condemn discrimination against Caucasian Americans and Christians.”
Omar drew intense scrutiny last week when she suggested that Israel’s supporters have an “allegiance to a foreign country,” remarks that angered many who saw them as hateful tropes. Her defenders argued that leadership was applying a double standard in singling out one of the two Muslim women in Congress.
The resolution posted Thursday indirectly repudiates Omar’s comments, saying that “accusations of dual loyalty generally have an insidious and pernicious history” and noting that such an accusation “constitutes anti- Semitism because it suggests that Jewish citizens cannot be patriotic Americans and trusted neighbors.”
It also includes language condemning anti-Muslim bigotry “as hateful expressions of intolerance that are contrary to the values and aspirations of the United States,” and condemns incidents of mosque bombings and planned domestic terrorist attacks targeting Muslim communities.
Omar, a Somali American immigrant, has spoken about religiously motivated verbal attacks and threats she has been subjected to. Last week, a sign posted in the West Virginia state Capitol falsely linked her to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
The decision to sanction Omar for her “allegiance” comments without mentioning the hatred she had faced – as well as incidents of intolerance concerning President Trump and other Republicans – infuriated many Democrats and prompted a backlash at the initial plan to condemn anti-Semitism specifically.
That forced Democratic leaders to confront the divide while dealing with the sensitivities of their caucus.
“It’s been a tough, wrenching process, but I think that we have a really emphatic statement of our principles as a Congress,” said Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., a co-author of the resolution. “I don’t know that members want to be dragged down into every future statement or controversy that takes place with 535 members of Congress and millions of citizens . . . But we do have an important value-defining and principle-clarifying role, and I think we lived up to that today.”
As recently as Wednesday night, Democratic aides played down the potential for quick action after a rancorous closed-door caucus meeting earlier in the day exposed the raw divide between members. But, according to aides involved in the process, members and staff worked through the night to draft a broader repudiation of hatred – motivated, in no small part, by the belief that the internal crisis would only worsen if left unaddressed.
In particular, the aides said, leaders were fearful that Republicans could use it to derail a high-profile ethics and election reform bill, known as H.R. 1, set for a Friday vote. House procedure allows the minority to offer an amendment to the bill, and Democrats believed Republicans would force a vote on Omar’s remarks if they did not handle it first.
In a Thursday morning meeting, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., told Democrats they would be voting after all.
The seven-page resolution that passed the House acknowledges at one part that white supremacists have targeted “traditionally persecuted peoples, including African-Americans, Latinos, Native Americans, Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders and other people of color, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, the LGBTQ community, immigrants, and others.”
The version circulated earlier Thursday did not include Latinos, Asian-Americans, Pacific Islanders or LGBTQ people.
It also mentioned racial attacks in Charlottesville in 2017, the killing of nine African-Americans at a church in Charleston in 2015 and the deadly attack on a synagogue in Pittsburgh in October that left 11 dead.
Omar remained silent Thursday as she attended the morning meeting and evening votes in the House.
After the vote, she issued a statement with fellow Muslim Reps. André Carson, D-Ind., and Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., calling the vote “historic on many fronts” for denouncing “all forms of bigotry.”
“Our nation is having a difficult conversation and we believe this is great progress,” they wrote.
Pelosi, meanwhile, gave Omar tentative words of support.
“I do not believe that she understood the full weight of the words,” Pelosi told reporters. “I feel confident that her words were not based on any anti-Semitic attitude.”
Some of the Democrats who sought to craft a response specifically condemning anti-Semitism spoke out on the House floor to argue that the measure should have been narrowly focused.
“There is too much hatred, too many other people who are targeted, and we need to support all of them,” said Rep. Ted Deutch, D-Fla. “But we are having this debate because of the language of one of our colleagues – language that suggests Jews like me who serve in the United States in Congress and whose father earned a Purple Heart fighting the Nazis in the Battle of the Bulge, that we are not loyal Americans. Why are we unable to singularly condemn anti-Semitism? Why can’t we call out anti-Semitism and show we’ve learned the lessons of history?”
Rep. Josh Gottheimer, D-N.J., who was also involved in the initial measure, said he was glad Congress spoke out against anti-Semitism and the notion that supporters of Israel have a “dual loyalty” that throws their patriotism into question.
“Unfortunately,” he said, “it was also clear from the discussions this week – and in the ultimate resolution – that many people treat anti-Semitism differently than other forms of bigotry and hatred. There shouldn’t be an asterisk next to anti-Semitism.”
Republicans, meanwhile, sought to capitalize politically on the Democratic division, eager to position their party as the more reliable ally of Israel ahead of the 2020 elections.
On Thursday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., chided House Democratic leaders for not acting more quickly: “Apparently within the speaker’s new far-left Democratic majority, even a symbolic – symbolic – resolution condemning anti-Semitism seems to be a bridge too far,” he said on the Senate floor.
Numerous Democrats expressed hope earlier Thursday that the resolution would put the Omar controversy behind them. It had festered for days, with some Democrats tweeting pointed remarks at each other and others sharing their views in a frank exchange behind closed doors.
Several lashed out at reporters for covering the controversy surrounding Omar rather than the legislation Democrats worked toward passing Friday.
“You would think that’s the only thing that we do,” Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., said of the internal rancor over Omar. “She is learning important lessons right now, and I just think that it is shameful that it is being exploited, not just by the Republicans, but also by the press.”
Rep. Linda Sánchez, D-Calif., said the new Democratic majority was also learning important lessons.
“We need to listen to one another, understand where people are coming from, to reduce miscommunications and hurt feelings,” she said. “The media loves to report on division. Hopefully members will be more mindful and not fall into that trap.”