Friday February 3, 2023
By Karoun Demirjian
WASHINGTON — A bitterly divided House on Thursday ousted Representative Ilhan Omar of Minnesota from the Foreign Affairs Committee over past comments about Israel that were widely condemned as antisemitic, as Republicans moved to cater to the demands of right-wing members and mete out punishment to a Democrat their party has demonized for years.
The 218-to-211 party-line vote, with one member voting “present,” settled a partisan score that has been festering since 2021, when the House, then controlled by Democrats, stripped Representatives Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia and Paul Gosar of Arizona of their committee assignments for social media posts in which they endorsed violence against Democrats.
The removal of Ms. Omar delivered on a threat that Speaker Kevin McCarthy of California made at the time to retaliate if his party took the House majority by removing Democrats whom Republicans regarded as unfit to serve on committees. Last week, he unilaterally removed Representatives Adam B. Schiff and Eric Swalwell, both of California, from the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, where membership is appointed and thus not subject to a vote.
Mr. McCarthy’s decision to force the removal of Ms. Omar, a step that some of his rank-and-file members resisted, in the earliest days of his new majority demonstrated his determination to ingratiate himself with the hard-right Republican base, which has made the Somali-born Ms. Omar a target for some of its most vicious attacks. Former President Donald J. Trump famously said in 2019 that Ms. Omar and three other progressive women of color should “go back” to their countries, though she was the only one not born in the United States.
The vote on Thursday was also a bid by Mr. McCarthy to curry favor with pro-Israel groups and evangelical voters and to drive a wedge among Democrats, many of whom had condemned Ms. Omar’s statements about Israel.
In 2019, Ms. Omar drew criticism from Democrats and Republicans alike for tweeting that certain pro-Israel groups were “all about the Benjamins, baby,” appearing to refer to hundred-dollar bills in what was seen as invoking an antisemitic trope about Jews and money. She later apologized for the comment. Two years later, Ms. Omar seemingly equated “atrocities” carried out by the U.S. military to those committed by terrorist groups like the Taliban and Hamas; she later said she had not meant to compare them.
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Yet during an unusually raw debate on the House floor on Thursday, prominent Democrats, including many Jewish members, stood alongside Ms. Omar’s closest friends in Congress to defend her in passionate and at times emotional speeches. They accused Republicans of hypocrisy, xenophobia and racism for targeting her while saying nothing about antisemitic remarks by members of their own party, some of whom have associated with Holocaust deniers.
“A blatant double standard is being applied here,” said Representative Gregory W. Meeks of New York, the top Democrat on the Foreign Affairs Committee. “Something just doesn’t add up. And what is the difference between Representative Omar and these members? Could it be the way that she looks? Could it be her religious practices?”
Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Democrat of New York, was more direct about the exiling of Ms. Omar, who is Black and one of the first Muslim women elected to Congress. “This is about targeting women of color in the United States of America,” Ms. Ocasio-Cortez said.
Republicans were comparatively sober as they made the case for removing Ms. Omar.
“Individuals who hold such hateful views should rightly be barred from that type of committee,” said Representative Mike Lawler of New York. “Words matter. Rhetoric matters. It leads to harm, and so the congresswoman is being held accountable for her words and her actions.”
Mr. McCarthy and the members of his leadership team were nowhere to be seen during the floor debate, during which the number of Democrats speaking on behalf of Ms. Omar outnumbered Republicans two to one. After the vote, Mr. McCarthy defended the decision to remove Ms. Omar, telling reporters that it was “not tit for tat,” but based on her statements.
“I’m not removing people from all committees,” Mr. McCarthy said, pointing out that Ms. Omar had been excised from just one panel, unlike Ms. Greene and Mr. Gosar.
But his effort to oust Ms. Omar stalled and nearly faltered in recent weeks, highlighting the challenges Mr. McCarthy faces as he tries to make good on his promised agenda with a razor-thin majority that has already proved to be unruly. Some Republicans were concerned about being seen as hypocritical after they had railed against the removals of Ms. Greene and Mr. Gosar, and about the precedent set by expelling a lawmaker for her views and statements, particularly by a party that routinely condemns “cancel culture.”
In the end, after days of haggling by Mr. McCarthy, all but one Republican fell in line, with Representative David Joyce of Ohio voting “present,” as he did on Democrats’ resolution to expel Mr. Gosar.
Debate over the move turned raucous, particularly after Ms. Omar made a defiant speech defending herself. She drew cheers and applause from her colleagues as she declared, “Take your vote or not — I am here to stay.”
Shortly before members cast their ballots, Ms. Omar charged that the move to expel her was an inevitable extension of the false “birther” conspiracy theory, promoted by Mr. Trump, that former President Barack Obama, the first Black occupant of the Oval Office, was secretly an African-born Muslim.
“I am Muslim. I am an immigrant. And interestingly, from Africa,” Ms. Omar said on the House floor. “Is anyone surprised that I am being targeted? Is anyone surprised that I am somehow deemed unworthy to speak about American foreign policy?”
Ms. Omar’s ouster capped off an opening month in the House that has been defined by political jockeying and messaging far more than serious policy ventures. During a history-making struggle to claim the speaker’s gavel, Mr. McCarthy provided a raft of concessions to his hard-right detractors to win their votes. He has spent the weeks since paying off those debts, including by placing ultraconservative members on powerful committees and forming a new panel to investigate the “weaponization of government.”
The House has also passed an array of legislation — all doomed in the Senate — that would defund I.R.S. enforcement against tax cheats, prosecute some abortion providers and end federal coronavirus vaccine mandates and precautions.
The stage was set this week for Ms. Omar’s expulsion when Representative George Santos of New York — the embattled Republican freshman who has admitted to having misrepresented his background and is facing multiple fraud investigations — announced that he would temporarily remove himself from his House committees until his name was cleared. Mr. Santos had become a lightning rod for accusations of a double standard, as Democrats scorned Mr. McCarthy for protecting him while targeting Ms. Omar, Mr. Schiff and Mr. Swalwell.
But some Republicans were still uncomfortable with the move, holding out until Mr. McCarthy agreed to add language to the measure citing lawmakers’ right to appeal such decisions to the Ethics Committee, a mechanism that was already available to them.
“He added explicitly to this resolution to make sure that we apply the same standard not just to Democrats, but to Republicans,” Representative Victoria Spartz of Indiana said of Mr. McCarthy during the floor debate, explaining her decision to back the measure.
That gesture was not enough for some other Republicans. Representative Ken Buck of Colorado, one of the more conservative naysayers, exacted a pledge from Mr. McCarthy to strengthen the appeals process for members facing punitive actions in the future, a commitment that won over most of the remaining holdouts.