House Democrats on Wednesday were struggling with the first major internal fight of their new majority, as party leaders tried to negotiate a compromise over how to handle a resolution condemning anti-Semitism, initially crafted with the intent to soothe members offended by Rep. Ilhan Omar.
Omar, a freshman Democrat from Minnesota who made history as one of the two first Muslim women elected to Congress, is facing a new wave of criticism for ostensibly perpetuating stereotypes against Jews.
She refused to answer a series of open-ended questions on the controversy when ABC News caught up with her inside the Capitol on Wednesday morning.
In a week in which House Democrats are celebrating their new power by voting on sweeping anti-corruption legislation, the controversy has continued to dominate the news cycle, testing the patience of leadership.
Although leaders had circulated vanilla text to their members recapping the history of anti-Semitism and concluding that Congress rejects it, and even though the draft resolution did not directly name Omar, in a political environment deeply mired by political incorrectness, some Democrats felt it was inappropriate to single out Omar even indirectly, fighting to amend the text to add language that rejects Islamophobia and racism as well.
“There has been a rise in hatred in so many different directions, and unfortunately a lot of it has been emanating from the White House,” said Rep. Karen Bass, the chair of the Congressional Black Caucus. “There’s also a lot of concern in the caucus over specific threats and death threats that Representative Omar has faced, and so we are very concerned about that and we want that to be paid attention to.”
Bass added that she “absolutely would have a problem” with Omar’s name being added to the resolution, but said that Democrats “want to make clear that we make a stand against all forms of bigotry and hatred.”
Rep. Pramila Jayapal, the Congressional Black Caucus co-chair, downplayed divisions within the group, crediting House Speaker Nancy Pelosi for facilitating the discussion behind closed doors while ensuring that all forms of unfitting rhetoric are condemned.
“I think we’re looking for more, and I think that Speaker Pelosi has done a great job of trying to walk a number of different lines here, and make sure that we keep caucus unity and make sure that we support all of our colleagues,” Jayapal, D-Wash., said. “And make sure that we recognize that when, you know, that we need to have the same standards of how we look at what people say and what we call out.”
A vote had been anticipated on a resolution rejecting anti-Semitism as early as Wednesday, but after House Democratic leaders reopened the text of the resolution on Tuesday evening and ruled out a vote Wednesday, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, who tightly controls which pieces of legislation move across the floor for a vote, says he’s unsure when the House will take a vote on the issue.
“We are against hate and bigotry,” Hoyer, D-Md., said. “There’s no division in the caucus on anti-Semitism.”
Hoyer, who said he does not believe Omar is anti-Semitic, added that questioning the loyalty of a member who demonstrates support for Israel “is not a new trope” and was “correctly” perceived as “a particular danger.”
“That’s why we will respond,” Hoyer promised.
Asked when the House might vote on a resolution condemning anti-Semitism, Pelosi bluntly replied, “When we’re ready.”
In the meantime, President Donald Trump poked Democrats for delaying action on the resolution.
It is shameful that House Democrats won’t take a stronger stand against Anti-Semitism in their conference. Anti-Semitism has fueled atrocities throughout history and it’s inconceivable they will not act to condemn it!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 6, 2019
As the saga drags on, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the first Jewish member of Congress elected in the Sunshine State, said it is “pretty outrageous” that Congress has to craft a resolution to “spell out for people across this country what anti-Semitism means.”
“The purpose of a resolution like this is to educate people about what anti-Semitism means, how harmful and hurtful it is,” Wasserman Schultz said. “And because you have some members who either repeatedly or individually continued to use anti-Semitic tropes – and I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt and say it’s unknowing – then apparently we do need to put a resolution on the floor that educates people about how harmful and hurtful anti-Semitism is.”
After amplifying the disagreement through a series of tweets, even tangling publicly with House Appropriations Chairwoman Nita Lowey, Omar has shunned reporters who have sought to learn more about her position.
The controversy has even spilled over into the Senate, where Majority Leader Mitch McConnell delivered a long floor speech Wednesday morning denouncing Omar’s “crude, hateful, and backward anti-Semitic stereotypes.”
“This Democratic Congresswoman already stoked controversy in mid-February, having publicly proclaimed that Israel’s supporters are only in it for the money. Apparently, she believes the only reason leaders would stand with the Jewish people and the State of Israel is Jewish money,' he said.
"Well, I think we have all heard that kind of talk before. And we must not tolerate it,” McConnell, R-Ky., said. “This time, she claims that supporters of Israel actually have, quote, ‘an allegiance to a foreign country.’ There’s that ugly, old ‘dual loyalty’ smear. Plain as day.”
While Republicans appear somewhat entertained by the disorder in the Democratic caucus, McConnell acknowledged that Omar’s rhetoric has also “provoked offensive anti-Muslim comments in response.”
“That is hateful and completely inexcusable as well,” McConnell conceded.
Jayapal questioned the need to vote on the resolution, shooting back at Republicans “who just want to use this as a wedge issue but don’t necessarily call out anti-Semitism on their own side.”
“We are so strongly against anti-Semitism. We have said that before. I don’t know how many times we need to continue to say that,” she said. “What is the purpose of this, why are we doing this, and can we make sure that it is broad enough that it also addresses some of the other forms of bigotry and racism that we are seeing.”
New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has aggressively defended Omar through more than 20 tweets on the subject to over 3.4 million followers since Saturday, including one directly challenging one of her Democratic colleague’s tweets. Tuesday, she contended the debate advances white supremacy.
None of this is “whataboutism.” Racism and bigotry of all forms is inextricably linked.— Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (@AOC) March 6, 2019
When you don’t address them as a system and attempt to pick them apart as though they are distinct and separable issues, eventually the thing that gets advanced is white supremacy + classism.
Rep. Juan Vargas, whose condemnation of Omar’s comments on Twitter prompted an initial tirade of tweets from Ocasio-Cortez, indicated he does not believe there’ll be lasting beef with the new progressive superstar, telling ABC the dustup is “not that big of a deal to me.”
“She could have come down the hall and asked me what my opinion is. That would have been fine,” Vargas, D-Calif., said. “But I mean, I think it’s fine. We have a very different opinion here, I believe. To question someone’s loyalty because they’re Jewish, I think is terrible. I think it’s something we shouldn’t question at all.”
“This dual loyalty charge has led to the mass murder of millions of Jews in history. I’m not sure that everyone understands how grave this issue is, frankly,” Vargas continued. “We have to stand up and fight it each and every time it comes up in the strongest way possible. That’s my belief. If AOC has a different view, she can have a different view. That’s my view and I’ll stand behind that every time.”