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House passes anti-hate resolution after furor over Ilhan Omar comments

House passes anti-hate resolution after furor over Ilhan Omar comments
Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) at the Capitol this week. (J. Scott Applewhite / Associated Press)

The House voted Thursday to condemn anti-Semitism and other forms of hate after a protracted dispute fractured the Democratic Party over its handling of racially charged comments about Israel by freshman Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.).

Omar, a Somali American and one of the only Muslim members of Congress, said last week that pro-Israel advocates “push for allegiance to a foreign country.” Earlier this year, she apologized for suggesting that Israel’s influence in Washington was based on money.

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The two statements rekindled racist tropes that have been used against Jewish people for centuries and triggered what quickly turned into one of the most public internal fights to face Democrats since they took control of the House.

By Monday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) and other Democratic leaders moved to hold a quick vote on a resolution — the second in two months — to condemn anti-Semitism.

But other Democrats, including some presidential candidates and several of Omar’s fellow outspoken freshmen lawmakers, rushed to her side, suggesting that a double standard was at play.

Though few defended Omar’s words, they asked why the House would so quickly condemn remarks from one of the first female Muslim lawmakers while allowing similarly racially charged comments by President Trump and congressional Republicans to go unchecked by a formal response.

The resolution was delayed and then rewritten to address all forms of hate — including Islamophobia and white nationalism — in part to ensure Democrats supported it. An hour before the vote was held, another last-minute rewrite recognized discrimination against Latinos, Asian Americans, Pacific Islanders and LGBTQ people.

The seven-page resolution passed by a vote of 407-23. All Democrats supported the measure and most of the “no” votes were cast by conservative Republicans, some of whom complained that the resolution should have focused solely on anti-Semitism. Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), who has been admonished for racially charged remarks and apparent defense of white nationalism, voted “present.”

Before the vote, Pelosi defended Omar, as well as the need to pass a resolution.

“I don’t think that the congresswoman perhaps appreciates the full weight of how that is heard by other people, although I don’t believe that it was intended in an anti-Semitic way,” Pelosi said. “But the fact is that that’s how it was interpreted. We have to remove all doubt.”

The resolution was written by Reps. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), who is Jewish and a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, and Cedric L. Richmond (D-La.), a former chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus.

“There is no obvious answer on when to [have a resolution] and when not,” Raskin said, referring to the debate over whether there should also be a resolution to condemn Trump’s comments about “fine” white nationalists during the 2017 Charlottesville, Va., protests, or a 2016 Trump campaign ad featuring three Jewish Americans that Raskin called a “blatant appeal to anti-Semitism.”

Similarly, last year Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield) deleted a tweet in which he suggested Jewish donors were trying to “buy” the 2018 midterm election. He later told Fox News that the deleted tweet, which included pictures of three Jewish businessmen, had “nothing to do about faith.”

Some Democrats on Thursday questioned why the House couldn’t single out anti-Semitism.

“We are having this debate because of the language of one of our colleagues — language that suggests that Jews like me who serve in the United States Congress and whose father earned a Purple Heart fighting the Nazis in the Battle of the Bulge, that we are not loyal Americans. Why are we unable to singularly condemn anti-Semitism?” Rep. Ted Deutch (D-Fla.) said on the House floor before the text was released.

For that reason, it is unclear whether the resolution will quell the controversy. The dispute threatened to overshadow a high-profile vote Friday on Democrats’ bill to rewrite election laws and campaign finance policy.

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Republican congressional leaders, such as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, were quick to take advantage of the fissure to claim the GOP as the party to defend Israel.

“Apparently, within the speaker’s new far-left Democrat majority, even a symbolic resolution condemning anti-Semitism seems to be a bridge too far,” McConnell said.

This isn’t the first time Omar’s comments prompted a backlash. Last month in a tweet, Omar suggested Israel’s influence in the U.S. was based on money. “It’s all about the Benjamins baby,” she wrote, referring to hundred-dollar bills.

She “unequivocally apologized” when critics called her remarks anti-Semitic, promising to combat hate of all kinds, but pledging to continue to question foreign policy.

The resolution was the subject of a raucous meeting among House Democrats earlier this week — and some of the conflict spilled over to Twitter.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), perhaps the highest-profile House freshman and an ally of Omar’s, called out Rep. Juan Vargas (D-San Diego), who tweeted that questioning support for the U.S.-Israel relationship is unacceptable. “I’m curious if Rep. Vargas will further explain his stance here that it’s unacceptable to even *question* US foreign policy,” she wrote.

In the closed-door meeting this week, veteran lawmakers suggested that Democrats try to keep their conflicts private. Whether they can do so could have a significant effect on how smoothly the rest of the 116th Congress goes for Democrats.

Newly empowered with the authority to set the agenda, the moderate and progressive ends of the party still have to decide how to deal with a number of policies on which they don’t entirely align, including climate change, healthcare reform and impeachment.

Times staff writer Sarah D. Wire contributed to this report.

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