Rep. Kevin McCarthy appears to have passed his first test as House Republicans’ minority leader this week — holding the party together to sanction one of its own, Iowa Rep. Steve King, for his latest racially charged comments.
McCarthy, of Bakersfield, decided late Monday to bar King from membership on any committees in the new Congress, a move that shows a rare willingness by a Republican leader to discipline those in the party. On Tuesday, the House overwhelmingly supported the sanction, even as some members in both parties supported stronger action — even King’s exit from Congress.
King, who like McCarthy has been one of President Trump’s closest allies in Congress, recently was quoted in the New York Times asking, ‘‘White nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization — how did that language become offensive?’’
It was far from the first time that King has publicly made comments widely considered racist, and his sentiments have been common knowledge for years. Yet previous House Republican leaders, including former Speakers Paul D. Ryan and John A. Boehner, have avoided punishing him.
“I’m a brand new leader. I listened to what Steve said. I brought Steve in and met with him. I also did research on what Steve has said in the past,” McCarthy said. “There is no room for white supremacy. That’s why I took a strong action, that’s why I wanted to make a statement, that’s why I did something. We don’t take this lightly.”
Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma, a respected senior Republican, said that by acting as he did, McCarthy set a standard for how he expects members of the party conference to behave.
“He has a set of values that he intends to uphold. It’s a tough call to have to do something like that, and I think he did the right thing,” Cole said.“It was an important moment for the conference and for a brand new leader of the conference to tell everybody, frankly, what sort of tone he intended to set and I think he did that pretty dramatically.”
Both the toxicity of King’s words, and his national reputation, ensured that McCarthy’s response was widely anticipated.
King’s connections and prominence among Republicans in Iowa, which holds the first presidential nominating contest, meant that White House aspirants — including Trump — have embraced him openly for years, despite his inflammatory comments denigrating immigrants and seeming to embrace white nationalism.
That record was an issue in his most recent campaign, yet he was reelected to a ninth term. Since first elected in 2002, King had risen through the ranks to become chairman of the House Constitution and Civil Justice subcommittee and was expected to be the ranking Republican on the panel now that Democrats control the House.
“This, frankly, probably was a case of one time too many,” Cole said. “There wasn’t much dissent. There was a sense that this needed to be done and the leader had done the right thing and we needed to make that clear by backing him.”
Affirming McCarthy’s action against King, Republicans joined in approving Democrats’ resolution decrying white supremacy and disapproving of King’s comments by a vote of 424 to 1. The measure, while rare, was a step below a formal censure, and far from the ultimate penalty: expulsion from the House.
Illinois Democratic Rep. Bobby L. Rush cast the sole no vote, saying disapproval doesn’t go far enough. He is pressing for the House to censure King.
No Republicans defended King in advance of the House vote. McCarthy stressed to reporters that Republicans took action soon after King’s comments became public. “Republicans will not be silent,” he said.
Yet while McCarthy only weeks ago became House Republicans’ leader, after Ryan retired, he has been a member of the party’s leadership for years, and like his colleagues never pushed for action over King’s prior controversial comments.
Also, McCarthy has not joined other Republicans, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky in urging King to resign. “That’s up to Steve King. The voters have elected him,” McCarthy said. “House Republicans denounce his language, we do not believe in his language and we have decided he will not serve on any committees.”
California Republican strategist Rob Stutzman said that for a leader to call for an elected member to resign is a big step, and McCarthy is giving King the opportunity to leave on his own terms.
“It was honestly a very strong rebuke,” Stutzman said. “Stripping King of committees is basically showing him the door.”
Rep. Karen Bass of Los Angeles, a Democrat who is chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus and previously served with McCarthy in the California Legislature, said the onus should be on Republican leaders to expel King from the House, not Democrats.
“I was impressed that [McCarthy] quickly took his [King’s] assignments away but, again, that’s part way. Now, he needs to go all the way,” Bass said.
For two years, Republican leaders in the House and Senate have studiously avoided criticizing Trump for comments that have been widely seen as racist, including after fatal violence at a white nationalists’ rally in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017. Bass said white supremacists — and King — have been emboldened by the president’s rhetoric.
“I think they did the right thing,” House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) said of House Republicans. “I think they are very concerned about their party being perceived as a ‘Steve King party,’ frankly, as the president has given some succor to, in terms of what happened in Virginia when he said that both sides were at fault.”
Stutzman said Republicans across the country are looking for “not just words of condemnation but actual action” from Republican leaders. “I would hope this is an indication of the type of leader that Mr. McCarthy is going to be,” he added.
Still, McCarthy’s swift action against King probably doesn’t signal any change in how Republicans respond to Trump.
Stopped later in the day and asked why Republicans haven’t similarly rebuked Trump, McCarthy demurred.
“All I know is Steve King is a member of our conference, I am the leader of the Republican conference,” he said. “When I see someone use the term that Steve King used, there is no place in this country for it, that’s why I stood up,” he said.