Democrats back off anti-Semitism resolution amid dissent over Omar remarks

Rift opens in party as lawmakers decry measure as being rushed by Pelosi, back freshman representative under fire over comments on ‘allegiance’ to Israel

Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) participates in a House Education and Labor Committee meeting on March 6, 2019 in Washington, DC.  (Mark Wilson/Getty Images/AFP)
Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) participates in a House Education and Labor Committee meeting on March 6, 2019 in Washington, DC. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images/AFP)

WASHINGTON — House Democrats on Wednesday postponed indefinitely a vote on a resolution condemning anti-Semitism after a contentious meeting in which some new members confronted leaders over their push to rebuke Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota.

In the party’s weekly closed meeting, Democrats protested the way Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other leaders tried to rush out a resolution this week responding to Omar’s latest remark about Israel. Omar last week suggested the Jewish state’s supporters are pushing lawmakers to pledge “allegiance” to a foreign country.

That forced Democratic leaders to respond, but their draft of the resolution condemning anti-Semitism angered Omar’s fellow freshmen and their liberal supporters. Pelosi had already said the measure would be broadened to decry anti-Muslim bias. But that didn’t quiet the ranks, and the party’s first major dissension broke out in an uncomfortable confrontation, according to three officials familiar with the episode, who, like others, spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss private matters.

The upheaval prompted Democrats, who regularly celebrate their diversity, to push off a decision about the resolution.

Number two House Democrat Steny Hoyer said the language of the resolution was still being worked out, and that a vote date had yet to be set.

The resolution as it stands condemns the “dual loyalty” trope Omar invoked, but also condemns tropes that Democrats have accused leading Republicans of peddling, including the slander that rich Jews buy political favors.

A Washington Examiner reporter said on Twitter that the House Foreign Relations Committee will draft the revised resolution. Omar is a member of the committee. It’s head, New York Rep. Eliot Engel, has publicly rebuked Omar, but said he will not call for her to leave the influential panel.

“It is shameful that House Democrats won’t take a stronger stand against Anti-Semitism in their conference,” US President Donald Trump tweeted. “Anti-Semitism has fueled atrocities throughout history and it’s inconceivable they will not act to condemn it!”

Rep. Jahana Hayes of Connecticut complained that Pelosi left Democrats out of the loop on the resolution’s details.

“My comments were about the process we are using when concerns arise,” Hayes said in a statement. “As a member of Congress I should not get important information from cable news.”

Two people with knowledge of the situation said Hayes was engaged in conversation with a colleague when Pelosi asked her a question. The congresswoman did not respond because she did not hear the speaker address her, these people say. Most lawmakers had left the room at the time.

Then Pelosi said, “If you’re not going to listen to me, I’m done talking,” according to a person in the room.

US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat, speaks during the US Conference of Mayors winter meeting in Washington, January 23, 2019. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

A senior Democratic aide said Pelosi had earlier acknowledged the issues and said the resolution was not final. One person in the room quoted the speaker as saying the leaders had tried to increase communication so that members stay united and have “a clearer understanding of what our purpose is as a caucus, how we proceed.”

Rep.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-NY., left, walks with Rep.-elect IIhan Omar, D-Minn., right, during a member-elect briefings on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

Some Democrats hugged Omar, one of two Muslim women in Congress, during the meeting, according to other officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity. She’s also received powerful boosts from fellow Democratic freshmen Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan.

Opposition to the resolution, which did not mention Omar by name, came from the most junior ranks of Democrats to the most senior and spanned some of the party’s caucuses.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., who is running for president on the Democratic ticket, spoke out against the resolution.

“What I fear is going on in the House now is an effort to target Congresswoman Omar as a way of stifling that debate,” Sanders, who is Jewish, said Wednesday in a statement. “That’s wrong.”

Also weighing in was Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., another presidential candidate.

“Like some of my colleagues in the Congressional Black Caucus, I am concerned that the spotlight being put on Congresswoman Omar may put her at risk,” Harris said in a statement. She added: “You can both support Israel and be loyal to our country.”

Democratic Sen. Kamala Harris of California formally launches her presidential campaign at a rally in her hometown of Oakland, California, Sunday, January 27, 2019. (AP Photo/Tony Avelar)

Rep. Katie Hill, D-Calif., said she spoke up in a leadership meeting earlier this week about the original draft being “reactionary” to Omar’s most recent comment. The dissension over the issue, Hill said, “has been building for a while.”

House Budget Committee Chairman John Yarmuth, D-Ky., suggested Omar and her comments about the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a lobbying group, will loom over any such measure, however it’s worded.

“Whatever we do it’s going to look like we’re responding specifically to her and to AIPAC and so I’m leaning against,” he said.

Many have pointed to the fact that Omar was the target of an anti-Muslim poster that appeared last week at the West Virginia Capitol in Charleston, with her picture over an image of the World Trade Center’s burning towers.

“We’re very concerned about that and we want that paid attention to,” said Rep. Karen Bass, D-Calif. “Many members of the D caucus are concerned and concerned over the general rise in hatred that we have seen. And so we want to make clear that we make a stand against all forms of bigotry and hatred.”

There was also dissent among the Democrats on whether a resolution condemning anti-Semitism was even necessary, given that the House voted on a similar measure already.

“I’m not sure we need to continue to do this every single time,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal, the co-chairwoman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.

Rashida Tlaib, left, votes for Speaker-designate Rep. Nancy Pelosi along with her kids during the first session of the 116th Congress at the US Capitol January 3, 2019 in Washington, DC. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images/AFP)

The upheaval was a striking change from the heady first days of Democratic control, which installed Pelosi as speaker for the second time. Omar is among the most prominent freshman, as evidenced by her appearance on the cover of Rolling Stone’s March issue with Pelosi, Hayes and Ocasio-Cortez. The resolution has created friction among Pelosi and all three of the women in the photo.

Omar, one of two Muslim women in Congress, has declined to comment, but a series of remarks about US-Israel policy have forced the Democrats to respond. Word of the resolution came out hours after the Anti-Defamation League published an open letter urging Pelosi to push such a measure.

Pelosi, House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel and other Democrats have condemned Omar’s remarks about divided loyalties. She did not apologize.

The Democratic dissension was noted by Republicans with not just a little glee.

“It looks like the Democrats are doing a nice job of chewing themselves up,” said Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill.

JTA, AFP and Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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