Congress

Concerned about attacking Ilhan Omar, Democrats pivot on anti-Semitism resolution

Some concerned resolution is a distraction, others raise question about standards for rebuke

Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., and comments she made about Israel has been at the center of debate over a resolution responding to her comments. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

An anti-Semitism resolution that Democratic leaders drafted to respond to comments by freshman Rep. Ilhan Omar has led to an intense debate in the Democratic Caucus about how the party can speak out against hate without personally attacking a colleague. 

Democrats seem to be coalescing around a broader resolution that would reject all forms of religious bigotry, racism and xenophobia. A vote on that could come as soon as this week.

At the same time, some in the caucus are questioning the point of the nonbinding resolution, saying it’s a distraction from their policy agenda. Others are raising questions about Democrats’ standard for formal rebuke, pointing out that President Donald Trump often makes hateful comments without such a response. 

“We’re living in a time of scary bigotry and rising anti-Semitism and racism,” Maryland Rep. Jamie Raskin said. “So there’s a practical question, which is, should we address each and every episode of an outbreak of bias and discrimination — or should we try to have a general articulation of what our values are and what our aspirations are for the country and then let individual members sort out every particular flare up of anti-Semitism, racism and bigotry?”

Watch: Pelosi focuses on HR1 and the anti-Semitism resolution in weekly presser

Most Democrats seem to favor the latter strategy. And even Democratic leaders are now characterizing the evolving resolution as a statement of values, not a response to Omar’s comments — though they began drafting it over the weekend amid complaints over Omar’s most recent remarks.

“It is a statement of what we believe. It is not a reaction to any one statement,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi said of the resolution.

The California Democrat, speaking with reporters Wednesday evening, said the Foreign Affairs Committee was taking the lead on drafting the updated text and that timing of a vote was to be determined. Other Democratic lawmakers and aides said a vote this week is possible but not guaranteed.

Text of the anti-Semitism resolution that leaders drafted over the weekend, which circulated among the press Monday, did not name Omar but was clearly tailored to respond directly to comments she made recently. 

“I want to talk about the political influence in this country that says it is OK to push for allegiance to a foreign country,” the Minnesota Democrat, who openly opposes Israel’s government, said at an event last week. 

In a clear response to that comment, the initial draft resolution contained several clauses rejecting “the myth of dual loyalty.” It also rejected the anti-Semitic belief that Jews control the banks, media and the government — an apparent response to comments Omar made last month accusing politicians of being influenced by donations from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a pro-Israel lobbying group.

‘No hierarchy of hurt’

Rank-and-file Democrats, particularly Omar’s progressive allies, complained that the resolution seemed to serve only as a rebuke to the freshman. 

“What I’ve been in touch with leadership about is we need to have equity in our outrage, and Islamophobia needs to be included in this,” Massachusetts Rep. Ayanna S. Pressley said. “We need to denounce all forms of hate. There is no hierarchy of hurt.”

The Congressional Black Caucus and Congressional Progressive Caucus led the calls to broaden the resolution to include other forms of religious bigotry and racism.

But after the CBC met on the topic Wednesday, Chairwoman Karen Bass acknowledged the opinions were “all over the map.”

“There’s some people that feel, why are we doing the resolution, some people that feel they want to see what it actually says and some people feel good about what they’re doing,” the California Democrat said. 

Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman is among those CBC members who don’t see the need for the resolution, noting Democrats have been clear that they reject anti-Semitism, racism — all the isms. 

“I think it’s unnecessary,” the New Jersey Democrat said. “I’m concerned about the president of the United States creating an environment in which we get caught up and distracted in this stuff and not in the real stuff. I do not wish to be distracted from our agenda.”

Trump did feed into the distraction, tweeting Wednesday about Democrats’ disarray over 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!”

The debate over the resolution has landed the same week Democrats are trying to pass the headline bill of their agenda, an overhaul of voting, campaign finance and ethics overhauls dubbed HR 1.

That’s probably why leaders were initially planning to vote on the anti-Semitism resolution Wednesday — to dispense with the matter and the questions about Omar quickly, before debating and passing HR 1. 

If that was the strategy, it certainly backfired. Reporters spent most of Wednesday asking about the status of and reaction to the anti-Semitism resolution. Democrats, meanwhile, tried to keep the focus on HR 1, holding press conferences and giving floor speeches.

“Nothing will overshadow that,” Pelosi said when asked about the anti-Semitism debate distracting from Democrats passing their top campaign priority.

Avoiding a precedent?

While there’s little doubt Democrats will eventually settle on a resolution with language that accommodates the diverse views of their caucus, it is unclear if that will prevent future scenarios in which the House may be compelled to respond to offensive language with a formal legislative rebuke. 

Pelosi’s answer to that question suggested she doesn’t want to tie her hands in any future scenario.

“It doesn’t mean anything at all, except what it means for now,” she said, noting the resolution, once it’s released, will speak for itself.

Democrats, new to the majority, seemed to open the door to a precedent on rebuking offensive comments earlier this year when they responded to Iowa Republican Rep. Steve King with a resolution broadly condemning white supremacy. He was named only once in the resolution, in a clause that briefly referenced his offending remark, but the resolution as a whole was so uncontroversial that even King voted for it.

The Omar response was drafted similarly, except it did not name her or reference specific comments she made. Yet Democrats were more worked up about this response, seemingly because it was an attack on one of their own.

When asked if they set the wrong precedent with the King resolution, several Democrats said the two incidents aren’t comparable because King had long used offensive language before making similar remarks that spurred the resolution. But they also cautioned that they don’t want to set a standard that the House needs to respond to every offensive comment.

“Steve got away with it for 10 years, so it was long overdue,” Ohio Rep Marcia Fudge said. “I would hope that we would never be in a position to every time somebody says something we disagree with that we’d want to have a resolution to rebuke them.”

House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer said there doesn’t need to be a response to every offensive comment a member makes, but this instance merited one because of the “danger” of the rhetoric used.

“Through millennia, [it’s] been asserted that Jews aren’t loyal to our country, they’re loyal to some other country. Israel hasn’t always existed, obviously, as a country, but this is not a new trope,” the Maryland Democrat said. 

Hoyer also noted that it’s important for the House to respond in matters involving its members, like the ones with King and Omar, because of the hate and prejudice Trump stokes on a regular basis.

“I don’t make an analogy between Steve King and Congresswoman Omar,” Hoyer said. “However, I will tell you, I don’t think she’s anti-Semitic.”

Some Democrats want to ensure that the caucus has a plan moving forward for how to deal with similar situations so Republicans can’t seize on them in a moment of weakness.

“We are now the majority, and the Republicans have an intent to divide us whenever they can, so what processes can we as a caucus put in place so we don’t help them to do that?” Progressive Caucus Co-Chair Pramila Jayapal of Washington said.

As Rep. Lois Frankel noted, “Religious bigotry is rampant in the world.”

“It’s never too late or too early to push back on it,” the Florida Democrat said. “I think the discussion is for it not to be personal toward one member.”

Ilhan Omar: Diversity in Congress leads to better policy

Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call on your iPhone or your Android.