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

© Sergio Flores/Bloomberg House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) speaks during a news conference in Austin, Texas, on March 5, 2019.

House Democrats erupted into a full-scale brawl 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.

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.

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.”

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 lashed out at 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.”

Both the Congressional Black Caucus and Congressional Progressive Caucus are expected to meet later Wednesday and could take a position opposing any resolution responding to Omar’s remarks.

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.

Members also began sparring about Democrats 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, Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), a close Pelosi ally, pleaded with Democrats: “Everyone stop tweeting!”

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, Rachael Bade | The Washington Post

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