Saturday, January 28, 2023

McCarthy faces narrow path in trying to oust Omar from committee

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House Republicans’ years-long pledge to kick Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) off the Foreign Affairs Committee is facing headwinds as concern from within the conference has made it unclear if, but not unlikely, such a motion could pass.

The debate has emerged after Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) unilaterally removed Reps. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) and Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.) from the House Select Committee on Intelligence Tuesday. That action fulfilled part of a pledge he made after Democrats took the unprecedented step last Congress of voting to remove Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) and Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.) from their committees.

The vote on Omar’s standing remains on hold for one obvious reason: Democrats have yet to officially name which lawmakers will serve on the Foreign Affairs committee, preventing Republicans from formally introducing a resolution to remove Omar.

But Republicans face another problem: a slim majority that only allows them to lose four votes in order to pass anything. That margin is down to three as Rep. Greg Steube (R-Fla.) recovers at home from a traumatic fall that left him injured.

Reps. Nancy Mace (R-S.C.) and Victoria Spartz (R-Ind.) have signaled they will vote against removing Omar to stay consistent with their votes against ousting Greene and Gosar from their committees, leaving McCarthy only one vote to spare.

McCarthy said he wanted to remove Omar from the committee due to “repeated antisemitic and anti-American remarks,” a reference to her using an anti-semitic trope, comparing the United States to terrorists groups, and support of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, which pro-Israel groups say is rooted in antisemitism. Omar has apologized for using “antisemitic tropes.”

McCarthy has unilateral authority as speaker to remove any lawmaker from a select committee, such as the Intelligence Committee. But House Foreign Affairs is a standing committee, and removing a member from it requires a vote of the full House. Though Democrats have previously condemned Omar’s remarks, leaders plan to stand by her to try to block any effort to remove her from committees.

To ensure they have the votes, House GOP leaders during their weekly conference meeting Wednesday morning went through a list of the controversial statements Omar has made since entering Congress in 2019 to remind members who were on the fence.

“It was definitely a threatening message to members,” said one lawmaker in the room, who viewed the presentation as a motivator to solidify support for the eventual vote.

According to four people familiar with the meeting, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe a private discussion, leaders at one point flashed a Feb. 2019 tweet from Omar in which she said “It’s all about the Benjamins baby” — a reference to $100 bills that was seen as suggesting Israel’s allies in U.S. politics were motivated by money rather than principle.

Rep. Don Bacon (R-Neb.) said Wednesday that he would vote to remove Omar from the committee after expressing ambivalence earlier in the week. While he doesn’t want to normalize the practice of kicking lawmakers off committees, Bacon also doesn’t want to give Omar a pass after Democrats barred several Republicans from committees in 2021.

“If I use the benchmark of Speaker Pelosi, how she did it, she gets kicked off,” Bacon said.

McCarthy made clear to reporters Wednesday that Omar would only be kicked off of Foreign Affairs, not any other committee she may be tapped to serve on. Asked whether there was enough support in his conference to strip Omar of her one assignment, McCarthy said, “You watch.”

In response, Omar said during a press conference Wednesday that she hopes “Republicans will have conscience and will not prove to their constituents and the American people just how much of partisan hacks they are, how much hypocrisy that they have.”

Pelosi did establish the precedent of removing lawmakers from the opposing party from their committees, a right traditionally preserved for a party leader to use over its own members. In 2019, the GOP Steering Committee, which assigns lawmakers to committees, unanimously decided to remove then-Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) from his committees after he made repeated racist comments, a move that was recommended by McCarthy.

Democrats have called McCarthy hypocritical for supporting the removal of King, but not Greene or Gosar. Democrats also defended Omar, saying repeatedly that her remarks are not equivalent to expressing support for violence against prominent Democrats, as Greene did, or Gosar posting a video depicting the killing of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.)

Eleven Republicans joined Democrats in removing Greene from her committees in early 2021, while only former Reps. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) and Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.) voted to remove Gosar. Rep. David Joyce (R-Ohio) voted present at the time, citing his service on the Ethics Committee.

Though they voted to remove Greene from her committees, Reps. Young Kim (R-Calif.), Carlos A. Gimenez (R-Fla.), and Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.), said they stand by the June 2021 letter they sent to Pelosi to apply the same standard towards Omar and would support a vote to remove her from Foreign Affairs Committee.

“I voted to remove Marjorie Taylor Greene. There is no comparison with, for example, what she said before she was a member of Congress to what Omar has said, as a member of Congress, unapologetically,” Diaz-Balart said.

Republicans have defended McCarthy’s decision to remove Schiff, Swalwell, and eventually Omar from specific assignments, citing Pelosi’s standard. Schiff and Swalwell were removed from the Intelligence Committee after Republicans claimed they were concerned about both California Democrats having access to classified information, blaming Schiff for polarizing the once bipartisan committee as it investigated the Trump administration. McCarthy removed Swalwell citing unproved claims that a Chinese spy had extracted information from him. There has been no evidence of wrongdoing against Swalwell.

Schiff and Swalwell will still serve on the Judiciary Committee, with Swalwell also sitting on Homeland Security.

“I think it’s ridiculous that the speaker would kick two good members who know a lot about the intelligence world off of the committee, while at the same time seating George Santos and giving him two committee assignments,” Democratic Chairman Pete Aguilar (D-Calif.) said.

McCarthy pushed back on removing his own members from committees or seating lawmakers like Santos, who is under investigation by citing that their constituents sent them to serve in office.

“You know why I’m standing by him? Because his constituents voted for him. I do not have the power simply because if I disagree with somebody or what they have said that I remove them from elected office,” he said before noting that he would remove him if the House Ethics Committee finds him culpable of breaking the law.

Republicans and Democrats both condemned Omar early into her Congressional career for the “all about the Benjamins” tweet. In March 2019, the House overwhelmingly passed a resolution condemning antisemitic and anti-Muslim sentiments but never stated Omar’s name, which some Republicans called a cop-out by the Democratic majority.

While Democrats have rebuked Omar in the past, they have often cried hypocrisy against Republicans for attacking after her Muslim heritage. Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.) drew criticism for Islamophobic remarks she made at an event where she made reference to Omar and “the Jihad Squad” while making a reference to a suicide bomber.

Rep. Steve Womack (R-Ark.), a staunch conservative and institutionalist of the House, said he would vote in support of removing Omar from her committee, citing his belief that her remarks make her “unsuitable” to serve on Foreign Affairs. But he worries that the repeated practice could set an unfortunate precedent for the House.

“In the larger picture, I think we do have to be careful that we don’t create an institutional practice here of either quid pro quo or ‘what’s good for the goose is good for the gander,’ they did this, so we can do this — that’s not a good practice for the institution, and generally, I would be opposed to something like that,” he said.

Camila DeChalus, Theo Meyer and Paul Kane contributed to this report.

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