Although Tuesday’s long day of heated debate ended with the House voting to condemn President Donald Trump for racist tweets, the chamber’s brawl over the president’s behavior may be just beginning.
The House voted, 240-187, to approve a nonbinding resolution that says the chamber “strongly condemns” Trump’s “racist comments that have legitimized and increased fear and hatred of new Americans and people of color.”
Getting there was an extraordinary journey stretching more than six hours. Lawmakers spent much of the afternoon in emotional upheaval, with members on both sides of the aisle seeking to strike their colleagues’ words from the record, including those of Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Members who are immigrants affirmed their love of the USA in stark terms. And then an eight-term lawmaker, Rep. Emanuel Cleaver II of Missouri, abruptly dropped the gavel and left the presiding officer’s post — a move that members and longtime chamber observers said was unlike anything they had ever seen before.
The House’s majority Democratic leadership went forward with the resolution after Trump’s comments from Sunday, when he tweeted that Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Ayanna S. Pressley of Massachusetts and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan should “go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came.” (Only Omar, a refugee from Somalia, was born outside the United States.)
“I am a proud naturalized citizen born in India, a proud patriot, a proud person who belongs in this country. And it’s not the first time I’ve heard, ‘Go back to your own country.’ But it is the first time I have heard it coming from the White House,” Washington Democrat Pramila Jayapal said shortly before the vote on the resolution.
The hours before the vote, though, were tumultuous.
During the debate, with Cleaver presiding, Jayapal made a request that comments from Wisconsin Republican Sean P. Duffy calling some fellow members of Congress “un-American” be taken down.
Cleaver ruled that her request was out of order. And then Pelosi came to the well to deliver remarks.
“Every member of this institution, Democratic and Republican, should join us to condemn the president’s racist tweets,” the California Democrat said.
Georgia Republican Doug Collins interjected unsuccessfully, but once Pelosi was finished speaking, he made the Californian an offer.
“I was just going to give the gentle speaker of the House, if she would like to rephrase that comment?” he asked.
Pelosi responded that she cleared her remarks with the parliamentarian before she read them on the floor.
Collins then took the procedural step to “take down” the comments by Pelosi, saying they violated rules of decorum for the House, which forbid accusing the president of racism.
That led to a lengthy standoff on the floor and widespread confusion as to what was going on.
Stalemate on the floor
Finally, after a staffer could be heard saying to Cleaver that it was time to make his ruling and read a prepared statement, the onetime minister instead said he would make a statement of his own, casting aside the printed remarks handed to him.
“I came in here to try to do this in a fair way. I kept warning both sides let’s not do this, hoping we could get through,” the Missouri Democrat said.
“We don’t ever, ever, want to pass up an opportunity, it seems, to escalate. And that’s what this is,” Cleaver said. “I dare anybody to look at any of the footage and see if there was any unfairness, but unfairness is not enough, because we want to just fight.”
Adding a bit of dramatic flair, Cleaver dropped the gavel and declared simply, “I abandon the chair.” Then he walked off the rostrum.
“I’ve not seen it before,” said House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer before taking the gavel himself to resume proceedings at Pelosi’s request.
The Maryland Democrat announced the parliamentarian’s ruling against the speaker that “the words should not be used in debate,” according to a precedent from May 15, 1984.
Collins then moved to strike Pelosi’s words from the record, leading to a series of votes on the matter before finally getting to the resolution itself. In the end, four Republicans — Susan W. Brooks of Indiana, Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania, Will Hurd of Texas and Fred Upton of Michigan — and independent Justin Amash of Michigan voted with all 235 Democrats in favor of the resolution.
For all the drama over condemnation, at least a few dozen Democrats think that censuring or impeaching the president would be a more appropriate response to what they describe as a pattern of racist and xenophobic rhetoric.
“This sends a very, very clear message,” New Jersey Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr. said of the condemnation resolution. “But a censure … is more forceful.”
Tennessee Rep. Steve Cohen on Monday introduced a resolution to censure Trump with nine co-sponsors, including the four progressive Democrats who were the targets of the president’s attacks. He said seven or eight other Democrats told him Tuesday they want to sign on to the resolution, but it’s been hard to rally support for it because Pelosi is opposed.
Some Democrats want to go even further and impeach the president or at least open an impeachment inquiry. Omar and Tlaib both reiterated their calls for impeachment during a press conference Monday evening.
Texas Rep. Al Green told reporters on Wednesday morning a vote on articles of impeachment he introduced would come in the afternoon. Several other members, however, said they expected leadership to move to refer the measure to the Judiciary Committee or to table it, standard procedure to dispense with such measures.
On Tuesday, Green did just that, right after the vote on the condemnation resolution, reading his privileged articles of impeachment on the floor. The move, called giving notice, triggers a two-day clock in which leadership must consider or dispense with the resolution by tabling it or referring it to the Judiciary Committee.
“It just seems to me that these things are in tandem with each other,” Green said. “I believe that condemnation is appropriate. But I also believe that it won’t be enough to deter or to put guardrails up for this president, who seems to have little respect for the courts, little respect for committees that are performing proper oversight. At some point, we have to develop the wherewithal to say to this president, enough is enough. I think this is an enough is enough resolution.”
Twice in the last Congress, Green brought privileged articles of impeachment to the floor, but Republican leaders — then in the majority— successfully moved to table them.
Green had long decided that he would force a third vote on impeaching Trump sometime this year, but it was the president’s Sunday tweet telling members of color to go back to their countries that pushed him to bring it up now.
“I’m 71. And I remember the ‘go back to Africa language’ that was commonplace in this country,” he said. “I’m a son of the segregated South. I had to go to back doors, drink out of colored water fountains, sit in the back of the movie, back of the bus. And that was all a part of it.”
“When I hark back and I hear that language, I remember all of these things. This was not a good time in the history of the country for persons of African ancestry,” he continued. “So I, at that point, I really felt that it was necessary to send to this president the message that there are some of us who believe that you are so unfit that you should be removed from office. And he is unfit, because he’s tried to infuse his bigotry into policy.”
Green offered the articles of impeachment a week before former special counsel Robert S. Mueller III is scheduled to testify before two House panels — a point that several members have said they wanted to get to before deciding whether it was appropriate to open an impeachment inquiry.
“The Mueller testimony will have no impact on this, and this will have no impact on the Mueller testimony,” Green said. “They’re totally separate issues. … They’re both about impeachment, but they’re for different reasons.”
Green said the articles of impeachment focus more on Trump’s “bigotry” than obstruction of justice, even though he thinks Trump is guilty of that.
Democratic leaders have yet to decide how to handle Green’s resolution, Hoyer told CQ Roll Call Tuesday evening after he left the floor after listening to Green introduce his measure.
Earlier in the day, Hoyer told reporters he would not try to talk Green out of offering it.
“He has to do what he thinks is right,” the majority leader said.
And with Trump unlikely to temper his language any time soon, the debate about what to do about that will continue, regardless of votes to condemn his language or how Democratic leaders eventually deal with actions by members like Green.