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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

House ousts Ilhan Omar from foreign affairs panel as GOP exacts revenge


House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) speaks to the press at the Capitol in Washington, after a vote to expel Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) from a Foreign Affairs Committee assignment, on Thursday, Feb. 2, 2023.


By KEROUN DEMIRJIAN


A bitterly divided House last week ousted Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., from the Foreign Affairs Committee over past comments about Israel that were widely condemned as antisemitic, as Republicans moved to cater to the demands of right-wing members and mete out punishment to a Democrat their party has demonized for years.


The 218-211 party-line vote, with one member voting “present,” settled a partisan score that has been festering since 2021, when the House, then controlled by Democrats, stripped Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., and Paul Gosar, R-Ariz., of their committee assignments for social media posts in which they endorsed violence against Democrats.


The removal of Omar delivered on a threat that Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., made at the time to retaliate if his party took the House majority by removing Democrats whom Republicans regarded as unfit to serve on committees. Last week, he unilaterally removed Reps. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., and Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., from the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, where membership is appointed and thus not subject to a vote.


McCarthy’s decision to force the removal of Omar, a step that some of his rank-and-file resisted, in the earliest days of his new majority demonstrated his determination to ingratiate himself with the hard-right Republican base, which has made the Somali-born Omar a target for some of its most vicious attacks. Former President Donald Trump famously said in 2019 that Omar and three other progressive women of color should “go back” to their countries, although she was the only one not born in the United States.


Thursday’s vote was also a bid by McCarthy to curry favor with pro-Israel groups and evangelical voters and to drive a wedge among Democrats, many of whom had condemned Omar’s statements about Israel.


In 2019, Omar drew criticism from Democrats and Republicans alike for tweeting that certain pro-Israel groups were “all about the Benjamins, baby,” appearing to refer to hundred-dollar bills in what was seen as invoking an antisemitic trope about Jews and money. She later apologized for the comment. Two years later, Omar seemingly equated “atrocities” carried out by the U.S. military to those committed by terrorist groups such as the Taliban and Hamas; she later said she had not meant to compare them.


Yet, during an unusually raw debate on the House floor on Thursday, prominent Democrats, including many Jewish members, stood alongside Omar’s closest friends in Congress to defend her in passionate and, at times, emotional speeches. They accused Republicans of hypocrisy, xenophobia and racism for targeting her while saying nothing about antisemitic remarks by members of their own party, some of whom have associated with Holocaust deniers.


“A blatant double standard is being applied here,” said Rep. Gregory Meeks, D-N.Y., the ranking party member on the Foreign Affairs Committee. “Something just doesn’t add up. And what is the difference between Rep. Omar and these members? Could it be the way that she looks? Could it be her religious practices?”


Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., was more direct about the exiling of Omar, who is Black and one of the first Muslim women elected to Congress. “This is about targeting women of color in the United States of America,” Ocasio-Cortez said.


Republicans were comparatively sober as they made the case for removing Omar.


“Individuals who hold such hateful views should rightly be barred from that type of committee,” said Rep. Mike Lawler, R-N.Y. “Words matter. Rhetoric matters. It leads to harm, and so the congresswoman is being held accountable for her words and her actions.”


McCarthy and the members of his leadership team were nowhere to be seen during the floor debate, during which the number of Democrats speaking on behalf of Omar outnumbered Republicans 2 to 1. After the vote, McCarthy defended the decision to remove Omar, telling reporters that it was “not tit for tat,” but based on her statements.


“I’m not removing people from all committees,” McCarthy said, pointing out that Omar had been excised from just one panel, unlike Greene and Gosar.


But his effort to oust Omar stalled and nearly faltered in recent weeks, highlighting the challenges McCarthy faces as he tries to make good on his promised agenda with a razor-thin majority that has already proved to be unruly. Some Republicans were concerned about being seen as hypocritical after they had railed against the removals of Greene and Gosar, and about the precedent set by expelling a lawmaker for her views and statements, particularly by a party that routinely condemns “cancel culture.”


In the end, after days of haggling by McCarthy, all but one Republican fell in line, with Rep. David Joyce of Ohio voting “present,” as he did on Democrats’ resolution to expel Gosar.


Debate over the move turned raucous, particularly after Omar made a defiant speech defending herself. She drew cheers and applause from her colleagues as she declared, “Take your vote or not — I am here to stay.”


Shortly before members cast their ballots, Omar charged that the move to expel her was an inevitable extension of the false “birther” conspiracy theory, promoted by Trump, that former President Barack Obama, the first Black occupant of the Oval Office, was secretly an African-born Muslim.


“I am Muslim. I am an immigrant. And interestingly, from Africa,” Omar said on the House floor. “Is anyone surprised that I am being targeted? Is anyone surprised that I am somehow deemed unworthy to speak about American foreign policy?”


Omar’s ouster capped off an opening month in the House that has been defined by political jockeying and messaging far more than serious policy ventures. During a history-making struggle to claim the speaker’s gavel, McCarthy provided a raft of concessions to his hard-right detractors to win their votes. He has spent the weeks since paying off those debts, including by placing ultraconservative members on powerful committees and forming a new panel to investigate the “weaponization of government.”

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