Washington – The U.S. House overwhelmingly voted Thursday for an expansive condemnation of bigotry, as Democrats struggled to extinguish a controversy over anti-Semitism precipitated by Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar.
“Whether from the political right, center, or left, bigotry, discrimination, oppression, racism, and imputations of dual loyalty threaten American democracy and have no place in American political discourse,” read the seven-page resolution, which passed on a vote of 407-23. All eight members of Minnesota’s House delegation, including Omar, voted in favor.
Fallout from Omar’s recent public remark about the political influence of Israel has reverberated through the U.S. Capitol in recent days, dividing top Democrats as they scrambled to respond. Jewish groups and at least a few Democratic politicians in Minnesota have also been publicly critical of the first-term congresswoman.
The resolution did not single out Omar by name, but the hourlong debate made clear it stemmed from a comment she made last week at an event in Washington.
“I want to talk about the political influence in this country that says it is OK to push for allegiance to a foreign country,” Omar had said. For a number of critics, including prominent House Democrats, that echoed charges of “dual loyalty” to Israel that have long been used to discredit Jewish political participation. Omar previously apologized for several tweets, including one in January and one from 2012, that critics said raised similar anti-Semitic tropes.
Such words “have no place in our public discourse and indeed can be very dangerous,” Rep. Eliot Engel, a New York Democrat, said during the floor debate. “I must say that the words spoken by our colleague from Minnesota … went to a very raw place for me.”
Republicans, most of whom joined Democrats to support the resolution, accused Democrats of trying to obscure the impact of Omar’s comment by broadening the resolution to include other kinds of discrimination. It’s a concern that some Democrats, including Engel, voiced as well.
“Explain this to me, why it took a whole week to figure out how to say that hate’s hate,” said Rep. Doug Collins, a Georgia Republican. Every House Democrat voted for the resolution; the 23 no votes all came from Republicans, some of whom expressed anger at the way Democrats handled the resolution.
Omar and two other Muslim members, Reps. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., and Andre Carson, D-Ind., issued a joint statement saying it’s the first time the House voted to formally condemn anti-Muslim bigotry.
“We are tremendously proud to be part of a body that has put forth a condemnation of all forms of bigotry including anti-Semitism, racism, and white supremacy,” they said. “At a time when extremism is on the rise, we must explicitly denounce religious intolerance of all kinds and acknowledge the pain felt by all communities.”
While it most frequently cited anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim bigotry, the resolution also condemned bigotry toward black Americans, Latinos, American Indians, Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders and other people of color, Hindus, Sikhs, people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender, and immigrants.
Rep. Karen Bass, a California Democrat, said Republicans had little standing to criticize hate speech.
“The president has showed a lack of leadership on this issue and has in fact fanned the flames,” said Bass, chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus.
Rep. Matt Gaetz, a Florida Republican, jumped on that comment. “This is becoming the mantra of the Democrats — when they’ve got a problem they can’t solve, it’s President Trump’s fault,” he said.
Omar appeared in the back of the House chamber toward the end of the vote. She stood by herself for several minutes, typing on her cellphone. She later chatted and exchanged hugs with a handful of Democratic colleagues that included Tlaib and Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Pramila Jayapal.
Omar has gone quiet about the controversy in recent days, and she has met privately with Jewish colleagues to repair damage. She has declined several interview requests.
The House’s top Democrats all worked to contain the damage from Omar’s remark. The two top House Democrats — Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer — both spoke in favor of the resolution.
“Anti-Semitism is on the rise in America today. Attacks are at the highest rate on record,” Pelosi said on the House floor. But she said there’s also a place for an honest debate about U.S. policy toward Israel.
Earlier in the day, Pelosi offered a defense of Omar’s remark. “I don’t think that the congresswoman perhaps appreciated the full weight of how it was heard by other people. I don’t think it was intended in an anti-Semitic way but the fact is that’s how it was interpreted,” Pelosi said.
Several Republicans argued that Omar should have been named in the resolution. Pelosi said it was because “it’s not about her, it’s about these forms of hatred.”
Rep. Lee Zeldin of New York, one of two Jewish Republicans in the House, said that if Omar had been a Republican, her name would have been included.
“Let’s be honest with each other — we are here today because of anti-Semitic rhetoric from one member of this chamber again and again and again,” Zeldin said. He said he was disturbed that Omar has not apologized for her latest remark, which many of her defenders said was a legitimate concern even if stated poorly.
“I apparently am giving Rep. Omar more credit than the speaker does, because I don’t believe she is naive,” Zeldin said. “I believe she knows exactly what she is doing.”
Rep. Jan Schakowsky, an Illinois Democrat who is Jewish, said Wednesday that Omar apologized to her personally for what she said.
“I think she gets it, that this was inappropriate, it was offensive,” Schakowsky said. “And it can never happen again.”
Rep. Dean Phillips, a fellow Minnesota Democrat, said it’s been a “tough week” as Democrats have tried to calm the internal discord. As he has previously, Phillips suggested that Omar reconsider her Twitter habits.
“The Democratic Party and caucus is a big tent, and we’re seeing that this week.” Phillips said. “That’s not unhealthy. But having thoughtful conversation without Twitter getting in the way is at the root of this.”
As the first Somali-American member of Congress, Omar has quickly established a national profile; she has also been subjected to threats. Pelosi said it’s up to Omar to explain her intent with comments that have so angered many fellow Democrats.
“I understand how advocates come in with their enthusiasm,” Pelosi said. “But when you cross that threshold into Congress, your words weigh much more than when you’re shouting at somebody outside.”