Congress

House floor erupts after GOP lawmaker shouts ‘Go back to Puerto Rico’

Spokesman says Rep. Jason Smith was referring to ‘vacationing’ Democrats who went to inspect hurricane recovery

House Minority Whip Steve Scalise calls for a roll call vote after Democrats held a voice vote on a continuing resolution that would reopen the partially shut down government.(C-SPAN)

The House floor erupted Thursday shortly before Congress adjourned for the week when Republican Rep. Jason Smith yelled a potentially racially charged remark across the aisle as Democratic Rep. Tony Cárdenas was at the podium.

“Go back to Puerto Rico!” the Missouri congressman shouted, punctuating a stream of Republican whooping and hollering at the Democratic majority for initially rejecting their request to redo a vote on a continuing resolution to reopen shuttered agencies through Feb. 28.

Democrats had called for a voice vote on the CR, as is typical with most votes, and Republicans wanted a roll call vote to show most of their members objected to the measure. Democrats said they never requested one, but some Republicans disputed that.

Afterward, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer noted the Puerto Rico comment that he said was directed at Cárdenas of California. 

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“I would hope that we could refrain from any implications which have any undertones of prejudice or racism or any kind of ‘ism’ that would diminish the character … of any of our fellow members,” the Maryland Democrat said.

Smith’s spokesman Joey Brown confirmed he was the member who shouted, “Go back to Puerto Rico,” but said the remark was not directed at Cárdenas.

“Congressman Smith’s comment was directed at all the Democrats who were vacationing down in Puerto Rico last weekend during the government shutdown, not towards any individual member,” Brown said. 

Dozens of House and Senate Democrats were in Puerto Rico last weekend for a trip organized by Bold PAC, the political arm of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus that is led by Cárdenas, some of whom stayed for a separate Latino Victory political summit.

“I was shocked, because I often heard those kinds of comments when I was a kid growing up in Pacoima, California,” Cárdenas told Roll Call.

But Cárdenas indicated that he and Smith are patching things up after Smith called him and “took responsibility for the comment and sincerely apologized.”

Cárdenas said he accepted the apology.

After the comment was shouted, Texas Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee and other Democrats in the chamber shot out of their seats demanding to know who said it.

Cárdenas walked over to the Republican side of the aisle and huddled with some GOP lawmakers, but none stepped forward to admit they had shouted the remark.

“It came from the other side of the chamber. ... We don’t know who it is,” Jackson Lee said, declining to speculate on who might have been responsible.

“I would hope maybe privately the individual would go to Mr. Cárdenas and appropriately apologize,” Jackson Lee said.

The C-SPAN cameras were still rolling when the commotion over the Puerto Rico comment broke out. But it would be nearly impossible to definitively identify who shouted the remark because multiple Republican members were murmuring or shouting at the time and the comment came from someone who was not at a microphone or the podium.

A source who was on the floor told Roll Call that it was Smith, the Republican Conference secretary, who made the comment. 

Democrats who were present for the commotion felt the remark was racially motivated. 

“We’ve been called names and been told to go back to Mexico, go back to whatever, so many times,” Texas Rep. Sylvia Garcia said. “It’s just unfortunate that it would happen on the floor of the House of Representatives.”

Whether the Puerto Rico comment was racially motivated or a reference to Democrats’ trip there, “it was a aspersion on a Hispanic that he ought to go back to Puerto Rico,“ Hoyer told reporters.

Asked why he thought it was an attack on Cárdenas, Hoyer said, “Because he thinks it was directed at him because he was over there and somebody yelled at him.”

Minority Whip Steve Scalise, who had been corresponding with Hoyer about the CR vote proceedings, was not given an opportunity to respond on the floor when Hoyer asserted there were racial undertones to the Puerto Rico comment. He told Roll Call after that he’d let whoever said it speak for themselves but he doubts there were any racial motivations to the comment.

“None of our members would have made any kind of derogatory term to Mr. Cardenas,” the Louisiana Republican said.

Ultimately the Democrats agreed by unanimous consent to vacate the proceedings on the CR and hold a roll call vote next Wednesday.

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