House Dems Want to Fight the GOP the Old Fashioned Way. Good Luck
Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) stood behind a lectern in the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday morning and vowed she and her fellow Democrats “will always stand up to” Republicans’ efforts to “denigrate the integrity of the House.” At the moment, those efforts had amounted to a campaign to deny her a seat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, where she had served since she entered the House in 2019. Standing on either side of her were a pair of congressmen who had suffered a similar fate: Reps. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) and Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.), whom House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) had just removed from the House Intelligence Committee.
But what did “stand up to” mean, exactly? “Well, we have the support of the Democratic leadership who are willing to appoint us back on the committee,” Omar explains. “We obviously are given an opportunity to defend why we are on that committee. And we’re certainly going to do everything to make sure that he doesn’t hold the gavel too long.”
Omar’s fate on the Foreign Affairs committee will be put to a House-wide vote sometime in the next week. As for Schiff and Swalwell, the House Speaker has final say over who serves on the Intelligence Committee, so there wasn’t much to be done. They rejected the aggressive displays Republicans have engaged in when the tables were turned. Both said, for example, they had no plans to storm the secure area where the Intelligence Committee meets, as Republicans had done during the first impeachment of Donald Trump. “I’m gonna follow the rules — they’re chaos agents,” says Swalwell. “That’s the difference between us and them. We follow the rules.”
Standing up, in other words, means doing what they can to battle Republicans without becoming Republicans. The upside of that for Democrats is that they get to hold onto the norms they believe hold the country together, as well as to draw a contrast with a Republican Party that they hope will pay off in 2024. Between now and then, however, they’re going to allow the House to keep functioning, even as norm-breaking Republicans transform the chamber into a propaganda outlet and GOP 2024 campaign arm.
A combination of tradition and precedent has generally governed the House of Representatives, something the current Republican members have largely neglected in their early control of the chamber. The GOP’s far-right flank forced McCarthy to endure a humiliating 14 failed votes before he could finally assume the speakership. He eventually won because he agreed to establish a committee to investigate the “weaponization of government,” a grievance-fueled panel that in many cases aims to punish public servants for applying the rule of law to allies of Donald Trump. And — key to Omar, Schiff, and Swalwell’s plight — McCarthy vowed months ago to deny them their committee assignments, a breach of tradition that typically grants each parties’ leadership to make those decisions.
The inspiration originated from when the House removed Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) and Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.) from their committees during the last Congress. The votes had been in response to incidents in which both Greene and Gosar appeared to condone violence against their Democratic colleagues. Some Republicans joined Democrats in voting to strip the far-right lawmakers of their assignments. McCarthy nevertheless claimed Democrats’ decisions set a “new standard” for committee membership.
McCarthy singled out the three Democrats as boogeymen for various right-wing grievances. Schiff, McCarthy maintains, lied to the American public during the impeachment of Donald Trump from his perch as chair of the Intelligence Committee. Swalwell, the speaker says, maintained too close of a relationship to a Chinese spy during his first congressional campaign. Both had been key hands in Trump-related oversight, and believe that’s the real reason for McCarthy’s retaliation. “The cardinal sin appears to be that I led the impeachment of his master at Mar-a-Lago,” Schiff told reporters on Wednesday. Omar, meanwhile, made “repeated antisemitic and anti-American remarks,” as McCarthy put it. Her suspicions on his actual motives: “I do not actually think that he has a reason outside of me being Muslim and thinking I should not be,” Omar told HuffPost earlier this month.
Democrats registered their outrage with the most congressional of comebacks: A strongly worded letter. Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) tried to appeal to reason: Why could “serial fraudster” Rep. George Santos (R-N.Y.) serve on committees but “clearly qualified” Democrats could not? It made no difference to McCarthy, who officially booted Schiff and Swalwell from the Intelligence Committee on Tuesday night. The response? New assignments for Schiff and Swalwell, who will both move onto the Judiciary Committee, another plum oversight perch.
Democrats are mobilizing to save Omar’s seat. Rep. Dean Phillips (D-Minn.) has been holding conversations with fellow Democrats and moderate Republicans who could be swayed to protect her seat — even though the Jewish lawmaker has been critical of both Omar’s past comments and her politics. “I felt a responsibility to have conversations with as Jewish member of Congress and someone who is often politically dissimilar to Rep. Omar,” Phillips says. He’s not dismissing her 2019 comments that invoked an anti-Semitic trope , but “we can disagree without being disagreeable,” he adds. “Removing her from the Foreign Affairs committee would be a tragedy for the Congress and the country.”
Indeed, McCarthy’s ambitions may be thwarted by his own colleagues’ desire for some semblance of order. Rep. Victoria Spartz (R-Ind.) said she “will not support this charade” of removing members from committees. Rep. Nancy Mace (R-S.C.), meanwhile, sided with McCarthy’s decision to sideline Schiff and Swalwell but has said she’s unlikely to support a vote to remove Omar, citing her opposition to Democrats’ votes to remove Gosar and Greene last term. Phillips says his conversations with Republicans have led him to believe many more of his GOP colleagues feel the same way. “I doubt this comes to the House floor,” he says. “I can’t confirm that, but I think people recognize the false equivalency between Omar and MTG and Gosar.”
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