Tue, December 07, 2021

international

Republicans aim to exploit Democratic discord on Israel


WASHINGTON - House Democrats are trying to move past the angry exchanges this week over a tweet by Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., that highlighted intraparty tensions over Israel and led to accusations of bigotry, but some tensions lingered Friday, and Republicans are seeking ways to exploit the divide.

The discord comes at a precarious time for House Democrats, whose slim majority requires them to be unified to get their priorities passed, including a massive infrastructure package and an expansion of the social safety net.

Liberal Democrats, already wary that these major legislative efforts will be watered down to attract Republican votes in the Senate, were furious that a group of Jewish Democrats publicly rebuked Omar over her tweet that grouped the actions of the United States and Israel with Hamas and the Taliban. Omar later clarified that she was not suggesting there was a moral equivalency between the democratic countries and the terrorist groups.

But feelings remained raw on Friday even as both sides sought to ease the tensions, according to Democratic aides who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe internal party dynamics.

Now Republicans are looking to press the issue and possibly force a vote on whether Omar should be allowed to stay on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. As a precursor to that decision, a group of Republicans who voted with Democrats to remove Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., from her committees because of her extremist views released a letter Friday calling on Democratic leaders to remove Omar from the panel.

"We consider anything less to be a form of complicity," the Republicans wrote.

While tensions have simmered since Thursday, liberal Democrats privately worry that Republicans will force a vote, through what is known as a privileged resolution, to strip Omar of her committee assignments - and that some of the Democrats who rebuked her could join the opposition, given how quickly they released the strongly worded statement against the Minnesota congresswoman.

Republican leadership did not respond to a request for comment Friday on whether they would introduce such a resolution next week when the House reconvenes for the month, but Democrats are already warning them of potential consequences if they try.

"Republicans have more exposure than we do, so the chance for a tit-for-tat is possible, especially since they are the ones having the antisemitism problem," a senior Democratic aide said, referencing Greene's recent comments likening coronavirus rules on mask-wearing to branding Jewish people during the Holocaust. The aide, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private party strategy and conversations.

Democratic leadership does not support removing Omar from the foreign affairs panel - something GOP lawmakers have called for since she was given the assignment as a freshman in 2019.

Democratic aides to two Jewish members who signed the statement in opposition to Omar's tweet said it's extremely unlikely any of them would vote to remove Omar, especially if it were a move brought on by Republicans.

"We welcome Republicans to introduce a resolution, because then they'll be embarrassed to see Democrats sticking together and holding the line," one aide said.

Rep. Brad Sherman, D-Calif., one of the signers of the statement criticizing Omar, was less unequivocal when asked if he would support a vote to remove her.

"We have people serving on committees that supported an insurrection - let's deal with that first," Sherman said in an interview, referring to GOP lawmakers who voted against certifying the 2020 election. "I'm not calling for her to be removed from committees."

However, some members are informally discussing how they would vote if a censure motion were to be brought up instead. Democrats can afford to lose only four votes to pass or sink legislation or resolutions given their slim majority.

The conflict began over a tweet Omar wrote related to her questioning Secretary of State Antony Blinken at a hearing about how victims of crimes by the Israeli or Afghan governments can find justice.

"We must have the same level of accountability and justice for all victims of crimes against humanity," she tweeted with a video of her question to Blinken. "We have seen unthinkable atrocities committed by the U.S., Hamas, Israel, Afghanistan, and the Taliban."

Several Jewish Democrats began to text among themselves, expressing their displeasure with Omar's tweet, which jump-started conversations about releasing a statement to make their displeasure known in a bid to prevent Omar from making similar statements in the future, according to three Democratic aides. The 12 Democrats, led by Rep. Bradley Schneider of Illinois, released a joint statement late Wednesday denouncing Omar's tweet as "offensive," "misguided" and giving "cover to terrorist groups."

Several Democratic congresswomen of color rose to Omar's defense, calling the statement "Islamophobic," and in one case, "anti-Blackness," and railed against their colleagues for directing more animosity her way.

As tensions grew, Democratic leadership stepped in and began to coordinate with Omar about releasing a clarification in an effort to defuse the situation, said two aides. After she put out her statement Thursday afternoon, the full Democratic leadership team released a rare joint statement of their own that said equating the United States and Israel with terrorist organizations "foments prejudice," but that they welcomed Omar's clarification.

That angered some of Omar's allies, who felt it unfairly targeted the congresswoman.

"Freedom of speech doesn't exist for Muslim women in Congress. The benefit of the doubt doesn't exist for Muslim women in Congress," Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., the lone Palestinian American member of Congress, wrote on Twitter. "House Democratic leadership should be ashamed of its relentless, exclusive tone policing of Congresswomen of color."

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., sought to de-escalate the situation further late Friday, saying she did not believe any action needed to be taken against Omar and that she did not believe the issue would further divide Democrats.

"I think that she clarified her remarks and that was - and we accepted that," she told reporters in San Francisco. "And she has a point that she wants to make, and she has a right to make that point. There was some unease about how it was interpreted. She made her clarification."

Some aides to liberal lawmakers privately mused that Pelosi, given her tight majority, cannot afford to irritate Omar, Tlaib, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., and other members of "The Squad" of liberal lawmakers of color.

Realizing there is strength in numbers, liberals last month threatened to sink a bill providing funding for security improvements at the Capitol because it would direct funding to the Capitol Police following the Jan. 6 attack by a pro-Trump mob. After three liberal members voted "present" rather than voting to reject the bill, the $1.9 billion legislation passed on a 213-to-212 vote.

But the liberals do not want to gain a reputation as the Democratic version of the conservative Freedom Caucus, which often bucked its leadership when Republicans controlled the chamber and prevented the passage of party priorities, according to three aides to liberal Democrats.

"People are rightly furious," said another House aide to a liberal lawmaker. "But the best way to heal and unify is, in the future, have direct conversations and make sure we have each others' backs going forward and not let Republicans pick us apart because of this stuff."

Aides for some of the Jewish members who released a statement Wednesday evening said that some in the group are content with Omar's clarification and leadership's joint statement backing up their denouncement. But others still remain somewhat unsettled by the backlash from liberals who derided them for singling out Omar.

A senior Democratic aide for a liberal lawmaker said there have been high-level conversations between lawmakers and staff about the situation and how the various sides experienced it. The aide said they've told their counterparts that "when our caucus pick up on incendiary talking points, we're mainstreaming the vilification that leads to death threats to Rep. Omar and her team."

The aide added that what happened wasn't an isolated event but rather a symptom of a larger debate within the caucus of how to support marginalized groups. The prevailing sentiment among liberal members is disappointment, the aide said.

Even as tempers eased in Congress, outside groups were still angry with how Omar was treated. In a joint statement Friday, more than 50 national liberal organizations said that "the repeated targeting of Rep. Omar is rooted in sexism, racism, and anti-Muslim bigotry."

"It is no surprise that Rep. Omar's opponents would seize on any opportunity to once again attack one of Congress's leading progressive voices. The true shame is that many in her own party would buy in to such bad faith attacks," they wrote.

Sherman, for one, rejected the idea that they couldn't disagree publicly with Omar because she is the target of abuse.

"I think we all recognize that Omar is subject to invective and personal hatred," the California Democrat said. "Since I issued my statement, maybe a dozen have called for my painful dismemberment or death, but I'm well aware that being the first Somali American in Congress, that what Omar faces every day is what I have once a month. . . . That doesn't mean I can't disagree with her on public policy, but it means I'm aware of the terrible things that are thrown her way every day."

Published : June 12, 2021

By : The Washington Post · Colby Itkowitz, Marianna Sotomayor