Wednesday February 1, 2023
By Nicholas Wu
Rep. Ilhan Omar speaks during a press conference. | Alex Wong/Getty Images
Ilhan Omar, at times a lightning rod for House Democrats, is now a unifying force in her party’s quest to frustrate the GOP at every turn.
The member of the so-called progressive “squad” knew even before starting her third term in Congress that she'd face Republicans' long-promised threat to remove her from the Foreign Affairs Committee. And the Minnesota lawmaker is seemingly daring them to try.
On Tuesday, in a subtle stiff-arm of a GOP eviction attempt that her party has blamed on politically motivated revenge, her office announced the formation of a “U.S.-Africa Policy Working Group” aimed at fostering dialogue on Africa-related policy. The move carried a fatalistic air, given that the Somali immigrant would become the top Democrat on the Foreign Affairs subpanel overseeing Africa — if the GOP let her stay.
With what she sees as some of her most important work on the Hill under threat, Omar’s fellow Democrats are rallying around her and looking past the previous controversies, including members who once criticized her for remarks on Israel and U.S. foreign policy. No longer a fresh-faced new member, she's formed alliances with powerful players and groups who are ready to jump to her defense. Asked about her Democratic support in a Tuesday interview with POLITICO, Omar responded with the advice she said her father used to give: “It's hard to hate up close.”
It's clear that Omar sees the Foreign Affairs panel as more than just a committee position. The assignment is personal, given her background as a Black Muslim woman whose family had fled the Somali Civil War. After bearing firsthand witness to the impact of the Cold War on U.S. policy in Africa, she said, she even campaigned on wanting to be on the panel — making her one of the few lawmakers to do so besides a former chair, Eliot Engel.
After coming to the U.S. admiring the country’s ideals, Omar said, her goal was to “make sure those values and ideals are actually being lived out in the policies that we put forth and the ways in which we carry out those policies, and that they don't just remain a myth."
And the fight to keep her spot has become personal, too. Controversy over her past comments has aimed a deluge of invectives, abuse and even death threats at the high-profile progressive. Just before the interview Tuesday, her office received a phone call unpleasant enough that a staffer politely ended the call within seconds of picking up.
“This isn't about reprimand. This isn't about accountability, because I've held myself accountable,” she said.
Fellow "squad" member Rep. Cori Bush (D-Mo.) attributed the rush to boot Omar to fellow lawmakers making snap judgments based on sound bites or tweets before getting to know her personally, describing an unwillingness to “get the context to understand the person, meet the person and know the person.”
“But I think that since she's been here, people have been able to see who she is, and to understand her position better," Bush said.
If Republicans do prevail in Wednesday's vote to remove Omar from her Foreign Affairs perch, she said she worries about it further dividing the panel — injecting more partisan politics into an area that typically requires more cross-party unity on both policy and bipartisan trips abroad.
Her Republican counterpart on the Africa subpanel, Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.) has been publicly noncommittal on how he’ll vote on the removal resolution, and she observed that when Democrats eventually retake the House, “I will have the gavel, and they will end up being my ranking, and that changes the dynamic and the relationship.”
Meanwhile, Democrats have been trying to lobby their Republican colleagues to support Omar. New York Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.), the party's top member on the Foreign Affairs panel, said some Republicans had privately indicated to him they wished the whole issue would just “go away” because they didn’t actually want to vote to remove her, though the New Yorker declined to identify whom.
Omar too said she had been talking with “a few” Republicans about her panel assignment, but she also declined to name the members.
And she's not alone in her fight, drawing from strong wells of support both within the Congressional Black Caucus and among previously critical Democrats. She’s been spotted having intense, one-on-one conversations during votes this week with some of Democrats’ strongest Israel proponents, like Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-N.J.), and had a long hallway conversation with Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), who’s long helped lead an annual tour to Israel.
“I think we're rallying around her like we would any member,” said Rep. Joyce Beatty (D-Ohio), who as Black Caucus chair last Congress made a point of building bridges with the group’s more liberal members like Omar.
Then there's Rep. Brad Schneider (D-Ill.), who’d condemned Omar’s rhetoric in previous rounds of controversy in what he said “now seems like forever ago.” But in this case, he added, “to politicize the committee assignments is something I think either side shouldn't be doing. It should be based on current actions and current deeds.”
Republicans, on the other hand, are projecting confidence they’ll be able to round up the votes in the end. And there are some positive signs for GOP leaders — Rep. Victoria Spartz (R-Ind.), who’d previously opposed removing Omar from Foreign Affairs, signaled on Tuesday she was open to changing her mind. The House Rules Committee took up a resolution to remove Omar from the panel Tuesday evening, with a vote expected on Wednesday.
The GOP is citing Omar’s previous comments that appeared to lean into antisemitic tropes as the reason it's moving to force her off the Foreign Affairs Committee. Certain tweets not long after she came to Congress had even enraged some of her fellow Democrats, though she deleted the posts and has apologized.
She also drew a conservative backlash for comments in 2019 about the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, which she said Republican critics have taken out of context. She also quickly clarified and apologized two years later for comments on war crimes that appeared to compare the U.S. and Israel to Hamas and the Taliban.
And she's plainly frustrated that Republicans have forcibly compared her with Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) and Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.), two conservatives whom Democrats removed from committees last Congress with some GOP support in response to incendiary rhetoric aimed at fellow lawmakers. She's aggressively made the case that her situation is entirely different.
“I would love for this to be an actual debate. But it's a smear, it is an attack, and to me in many ways it feels like it's McCarthyism that's being carried out by the new McCarthy,” she said.
Olivia Beavers contributed to this report.