How do you solve a problem like Steve King?
“You can’t,” Rep. Trey Gowdy of South Carolina said of his fellow House Republican colleague from Iowa. “You don’t.”
But that doesn’t mean House GOP leaders and prominent voices within the chamber’s Republican Conference aren’t trying, now more than ever, to isolate and marginalize once and for all their colleague whose frequent anti-immigrant rhetoric threatens their efforts to make inroads with the burgeoning Latino voting base.
The turning point, perhaps, came Tuesday, when comments King had made a week earlier to the conservative media outlet Newsmax erupted into a firestorm that brought condemnation from the speaker on down.
The gist of his remarks was that not all young undocumented immigrants brought to the country illegally by their parents — the “DREAMers” — should be put on a path to legal status, despite that idea gaining significant traction among House Republicans.
“For everyone who’s a valedictorian, there’s another 100 out there who weigh 130 pounds — and they’ve got calves the size of cantaloupes because they’re hauling 75 pounds of marijuana across the desert,” King said.
By Tuesday night, Speaker John A. Boehner had released a statement calling King “wrong.”
“There can be honest disagreements about policy without using hateful language,” the Ohio Republican added. “Everyone needs to remember that.”
“I strongly disagree with his characterization of the children of immigrants and find the comments inexcusable,” Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., echoed in a separate statement.
There’s not much more they can do.
The days of threatening to withhold earmarks for key projects in the offending members' districts are over. Removing mischief-making members from plum committee assignments didn’t work so well at the start of the current session, when the conservative lawmakers whose seats were revoked became, in the words of one GOP aide, “martyrs” to the party base.
There also may be little gained in calling King in for a closed-door meeting to implore him to tone it down — King has been unapologetic over his most recent comments and many more incendiary remarks in the past.
In the meantime, there’s no telling whether leadership’s current shaming tactic will work. King’s press office did not return requests for comment Wednesday, nor did King himself emerge for a requested interview from the House floor during the early afternoon vote series.
He did, on Tuesday evening, make a Radio Iowa appearance to defend his remarks.
“This is real. We have people that are … drug mules, that are hauling drugs across the border and you can tell by their physical characteristics what they’ve been doing for months,” King explained.
What might be most effective is if prominent voices within the House Republican Conference begin to distance themselves from him, volunteering condemnations of King’s comments and emphasizing that he does not speak for the Republican Party at large.
“From time to time, there are folks here who say and do things we all disagree with, the majority of us disagree with, and that represents a point of view of one individual,” said Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Fla. “Look, Anthony Weiner … his issues don’t represent the point of view of the Democratic Party on women’s issues.”
“[He is] out of touch with the conference,” said Rep. Raúl R. Labrador, R-Idaho, who, like Diaz-Balart, is a leading Republican in immigration overhaul discussions. “He is in the small, small minority, almost singular minority.”
Labrador, however, said it’s the responsibility of the media to help draw out those distinctions between King and other members of the GOP.
Labrador in particular said journalists did the immigration debate a disservice on Tuesday in focusing on King’s inflammatory remarks and not the comments in support of the "DREAMers" articulated by every other Republican on the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration and Border Security, which had convened to discuss the topic at length.
And there is at least a chance that King's incendiary remarks could give leaders a new selling point as they try to whip an immigration bill later this year. The choice for the rank and file will be clear — do they want the party to be known as Steve King's party or not?
King does have allies still — both in the party's base, much of which shares his views on immigration — and a smattering in the House.
Rep. Trent Franks, R-Ariz., had his own perspective about how the media, and Democrats for that matter, demonize conservative lawmakers.
He is no stranger to controversy: He recently recused himself from managing floor debate on a bill he had championed, one that would ban abortions after 20 weeks throughout the United States, after he said that it was “rare” for women to seek abortions for pregnancies that resulted from rape.
“Steve King is a precious friend of mine and I believe in his heart he is as good as gold,” Franks said. “I have no doubt as to his desire to do the best thing for this country and for the cause of human freedom for everyone in the human family.
“We all have a tendency to judge ourselves by our intent of what we say, and others by the letter of what they say,” he continued. “Perhaps we should reverse that to a degree and look to what people mean as opposed to, at least, first trying to look for the intent.”