The fight over Rep. Ilhan Omar exposed deep divisions in the Democratic caucus

Image: Eliot Engel
Rep. Eliot Engel D-N.Y., was among the members critical of the decision to combine the anti-Semitism measure with a resolution condemning multiple other forms of discrimination. Copyright Jose Luis Magana AP file
By Jonathan Allen with NBC News Politics
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Analysis: Democrats can expect to find themselves brawling on ideological, generational, religious and racial lines again.


WASHINGTON — The fight over Rep. Ilhan Omar is over for now, but the battle lines won't be erased anytime soon.

After a week of brutal infighting, Democratic leaders rushed Thursday to re-write and pass a resolution condemning both anti-Semitism and prejudice against Muslims — rather than the Minnesota Democrat's comments on Jewish influence — so they could try to extinguish a political and media firestorm.

To ensure the hearty support of their caucus, they had to add the LGBTQ community, Latinos and Asian Americans to a list of groups targeted by hatred — leaving Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., to declare he was "very disappointed" there was not a separate measure addressing anti-Semitism on its own and Rep. Doug Collins, R-Ga., to note that Wiccans, Mormons and disabled people had been left out.

In the end, the seven-page measure, which noted scapegoating of Jewish people by the Ku Klux Klan and the America First Committee — technically a reference to the 1930s group, not President Donald Trump's campaign slogan — passed on a 407-23 vote.

But the entire episode dramatically exposed the ideological, religious, generational and racial divides within the Democrats' caucus at a time when they are desperate to demonstrate to the country that they are using their newfound majority to govern.

"There's all kind of undercurrents going on," said one House Democrat who criticized his party leaders for moving to reprimand a colleague for her speech and predicted that setting such a precedent would come back to haunt them. "This is just a first shot across the bow."

The lawmaker, who requested anonymity to avoid retribution from party leaders, was saying that the resolution resolved nothing.

Its sting was soft enough that Omar voted for it and praised it in a joint statement with fellow Muslim Reps. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., and Andre Carson, D-Ind.

"We are tremendously proud to be part of a body that has put forth a condemnation of all forms of bigotry including anti-Semitism, racism, and white supremacy," they said. "At a time when extremism is on the rise, we must explicitly denounce religious intolerance of all kinds and acknowledge the pain felt by all communities."

Many Democrats saw the contretemps over Omar's comments as an unwelcome distraction from the party's agenda.

"We need to be focusing on the campaign promises we made and our legislative objectives rather than this," said Kristen Hawn, a Democratic strategist who works with moderate Blue Dog Democrats. "There's a lot of good that's happening, and a lot of members who are working across the aisle to get things done and they're not necessarily getting the attention that they deserve. It's getting overshadowed by a few members who are getting coverage that's not proportional."

Instead, factions of Democrats spent most of the week brawling with each other over who had the right to be most offended, with many of their colleagues just praying for a quick cessation of hostilities.

Generally speaking, the battle pitted older, white Jewish lawmakers and their allies against younger lawmakers and those who are more liberal on U.S. policy in the Middle East. Democratic leaders were caught between the two sets, reluctant to anger the former by letting the whole thing go or the latter by condemning Omar.

Rep. Eliot Engel D-N.Y., was among the members critical of the decision to combine the anti-Semitism measure with a resolution condemning multiple other forms of discrimination.
Rep. Eliot Engel D-N.Y., was among the members critical of the decision to combine the anti-Semitism measure with a resolution condemning multiple other forms of discrimination.Jose Luis Magana

Concerned that Republicans would ultimately force a procedural vote on anti-Semitism that could upset a campaign-finance bill Friday, they threw together a resolution condemning many forms of bigotry, even against groups who had nothing to do with the matter at hand. At the same time, it said nothing at all about Omar — or her comments — who was the reason for the resolution in the first place.

She had said on Twitter earlier this year that American government support for Israel was "all about the Benjamins" — based on financial contributions — and over the weekend pursued a line of argument that suggested some lawmakers show dual loyalty to the United States and Israel.

"I want to talk about the political influence in this country that says it is OK for people to push for allegiance to a foreign country," she said.

The resolution addressed that concept — finding that "accusations of dual loyalty generally have an insidious and pernicious history" — but not Omar's comments directly.

Rep. Ted Deutch, D-Fla., who is Jewish, took to the House floor Thursday to call out Omar, Trump and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif. — though none of them by name — for what he described as the promotion of dangerous anti-Semitic tropes.


"When a presidential campaign runs a commercial alleging a global Jewish conspiracy ... it must be condemned," he said. "And when one of our colleagues accuses [George] Soros, [Tom] Steyer and [Michael] Bloomberg of buying the election, It also invokes classic anti-Semitism," he said, referring to a Trump campaign ad and a McCarthy Tweet.

"And while one of our colleagues invokes the classic anti-Semitic tropes, the anti-Semitic language that Jews control the world, that Jews only care about money, that Jews cannot be loyal Americans if they also support Israel, this too must be condemned," he said of Omar, later adding of anti-Semitic rhetoric that "words lead to action and death."

But the lawmaker who asked to remain anonymous said Democrats shouldn't police the rhetoric of their colleagues.

"She has a right to say whatever the hell she wants to say," he said. "If we start censoring her and dealing with that, then who's the next person?"

The passions of the issue — and the refusal of either side to back down — suggest that the battles over Israel policy, and the rhetoric surrounding it, are likely to resurface within the Democratic caucus. And Republicans are certain to stoke the fires whenever the opportunity presents itself.


"It is shameful that House Democrats won't take a stronger stand against Anti-Semitism in their conference," Trump tweeted on Wednesday. "Anti-Semitism has fueled atrocities throughout history and it's inconceivable they will not act to condemn it!"

Democrats were quick to point out that Trump had praised "fine people" on "both sides" after the 2017 white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Va., in which demonstrators chanted "Jews will not replace us" and a counter-protester was murdered when one of the rally participants, James Alex Fields Jr., drove his car into a crowd.

Their resolution pointed to the Charlottesville demonstration as a sign of rising anti-Semitism leading to violence.

Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney, chair of the Republican Conference and one of 23 GOP lawmakers to vote against the resolution, said Democrats put up a "sham" measure designed to "avoid condemning one of their own."

Democrats were unified in voting for the resolution.


But if they were trying to send a unified message about where they stand on what Omar said, they failed. And this is unlikely to be their last test.

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