Washington – House Democrats clashed Wednesday over what to do about Rep. Ilhan Omar, as the Minnesota lawmaker’s controversial recent remark about Israel divided the party and forced its leaders to reckon with internal divisions over how best to respond to anti-Semitism and bigotry.
Leaders of the House’s Democratic majority were forced to delay a planned vote on a resolution to condemn anti-Semitism that stemmed from the uproar over Omar’s remark last week, which drew criticism from a number of prominent Democrats. The controversy also upended efforts by the new majority to showcase their agenda as party leaders worked to contain the damage.
“The situation is dividing Democrats, which is exactly what the Republican minority and President Trump are seeking to achieve,” Omar’s fellow Minnesota Democrat, Rep. Betty McCollum, said in a statement Wednesday. She said Omar “has the power to remedy this situation with her colleagues and prevent it from happening in the future.”
Omar declined an interview request for this story.
Last week at an event in Washington, she said: “I want to talk about the political influence in this country that says it is OK to push for allegiance to a foreign country.”
Leaders of influential Jewish-American groups and a number of prominent Democratic lawmakers bristled at what they saw as a suggestion of dual loyalty, pointing out that charge has been used against Jews for centuries to marginalize them politically and socially.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer on Wednesday called charges of dual loyalty “particularly dangerous.”
But in recent days, a number of prominent Democrats have come forward to defend Omar, including two of the party’s high-profile presidential candidates — Sens. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Kamala Harris of California.
Harris said she was concerned that the outcry could put Omar “at risk,” while Sanders, who is Jewish, said he feared putting legitimate debate over Israel’s policies off-limits.
“What I fear is going on in the House now is an effort to target Congresswoman Omar as a way of stifling that debate,” Sanders said in a statement. “That’s wrong.”
A growing number of progressive groups and officials have also spoken on Omar’s behalf, including a coalition of Muslim and Jewish groups that gathered at the nation’s Capitol on Wednesday.
“Anti-Muslim bigotry and hypocritical double standards are a driving force behind the proposed resolution condemning Congresswoman Ilhan Omar,” said Farhana Khera, executive director of Muslim Advocates, a Washington-based civil rights organization.
Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, said there are “ongoing discussions with all the stakeholders in the House Democratic Caucus as to the appropriate way to proceed.”
Jeffries was speaking at a news conference meant to promote a package of law changes that Democrats have assembled that touch on voting rights and election security, the campaign finance system, redistricting and congressional ethics.
He was instead bombarded with questions about Omar.
This is her second bout with accusations of airing an anti-Semitic trope since she joined Congress in January. Unlike the first time, when she apologized for a tweet, Omar has strongly defended her right to criticize Israel.
Omar pushed back in tweets directed at one senior Democratic colleague, Rep. Nita Lowey of New York, chairwoman of the House committee that sets federal spending.
“I should not be expected to have allegiance/pledge support to a foreign country in order to serve my country in Congress,” she tweeted Sunday.
In her statement, McCollum suggested that Omar’s effectiveness as a legislator could suffer if she continues to cause controversy. “No one does this job alone,” McCollum said.
According to a Democratic source in the Minnesota delegation, House Democrats privately discussed Omar and the planned resolution in at least two meetings on Wednesday: in a full Democratic caucus meeting and at a gathering of the Congressional Black Caucus. Omar attended both meetings but did not publicly speak at either.
Omar has again been meeting privately in recent days with several Jewish Democratic lawmakers to make amends, the source said.
Several other high-profile new members, including Democratic Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, both tweeted that it was not right to single out Omar given comments by other lawmakers, especially Republicans, that they see as bigoted or prejudiced.
At issue in the internal debate over the resolution is whether it should call out Omar by name and whether it should include a broader condemnation of bigotry, including racism and anti-Muslim sentiment.
Omar, who is the first Somali-American member of Congress, has faced threats of violence, including in recent days.
Hoyer, a Maryland Democrat, was also peppered with questions about Omar at a press briefing Wednesday. He said Democratic leaders have not yet decided when the House will vote on the resolution.
The issue is also sensitive for Democrats given that many on the party’s left are highly critical of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. Party leaders have long attempted to balance those concerns with those of prominent Jewish-American groups, an important constituency.
Republicans have pounced on Omar’s comments, demanding her removal from the House Foreign Affairs Committee and insisting that other Democratic lawmakers answer for her views. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy noted that Republicans stripped Iowa Rep. Steve King of committee assignments after he made public comments supportive of white supremacy.
“We made a very strong point that we do not accept that language, believe in that type of language, or let that represent us,” said McCarthy, a California Republican. “I would think the Democrats would actually stand where we did.”
Jeffries said Omar’s future on the committee remains a topic of “caucus discussion.” Its chairman, Rep. Eliot Engel of New York, has also criticized Omar’s remarks, but Politico reported Wednesday that Engel does not currently support removing her from the panel.
Hoyer and other Democrats pointed to numerous past tweets and remarks as examples of anti-Semitic or bigoted comments, including those by McCarthy, President Donald Trump and others.
Trump has weighed in on Omar several times on Twitter.
“It is shameful that House Democrats won’t take a stronger stand against anti-Semitism in their conference,” Trump tweeted Wednesday.
Hoyer said Wednesday that he believes no House Democrat is anti-Semitic. “I don’t believe she is anti-Semitic,” he said of Omar specifically.
“Every Democrat is against all this hate, all this prejudice,” Hoyer said. “Which, unfortunately, the president of the United States stokes on a regular basis. That’s made it more important that we respond.”