Representative Ilhan Omar, a Democrat from Minnesota, listens during a news conference to introduce H.R. 4, Voting Rights Advancement Act, on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, U.S. (Photographer: Al Drago/Bloomberg)

Anti-Semitism Fight Hijacks Democrats' Bid to Kick Off Agenda

(Bloomberg) -- An unexpected fight among House Democrats over a first-year member’s inflammatory remarks has overshadowed a week that the party had hoped to devote to its top priorities: passing an anti-corruption bill and investigating President Donald Trump.

Instead of a unified message on the legislation and the probes, meant to be cornerstones of their agenda, Democrats are bickering over a resolution to condemn comments from Minnesota’s Ilhan Omar, for rhetoric about Israel that some viewed as anti-Semitic.

Now, both the timing and scope of the resolution are uncertain, leaving neither Omar’s defenders or those offended by her remarks satisfied with how Democratic leaders have handled the party’s response.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi has tried to use the anti-corruption measure, H.R.1, to bolster the profile of freshmen in swing states who campaigned on promises to increase transparency in government, expand voting rights and shed light on political donations. Democrats have been distracted from that bill, set for a vote on Friday, as members argue over when it’s appropriate to rebuke a colleague for his or her remarks.

“H.R.1 is very important to us and has a tremendous following in our country. We are going to see that we are going to get that done and I couldn’t be prouder,” Pelosi said. “‘Nothing will overshadow that.”

Not only is the policy message of the week imperiled, but there are also indications that Democratic unity -- forged partly out of resistance to Trump -- will be tested over whether to seek his impeachment. How Pelosi resolves the differences could foreshadow her ability to present a unified message before the 2020 elections, when the president and all House members are on the ballot.

The battle over anti-Semitism threatens to fray Pelosi’s relations with freshmen lawmakers after she worked hard to win their support in her quest to become speaker in the wake of last fall’s midterm elections. Some are now wondering if they could come also be censured by party leaders over a poorly worded tweet or a misinterpreted statement, said a Democratic aide, who asked not to be named.

Anti-Semitism Fight Hijacks Democrats' Bid to Kick Off Agenda

Members of the Congressional Black Caucus and Omar’s progressive allies, like New York’s Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, are demanding to know why the party was condemning Omar when, they said, the Trump administration was promoting bigotry.

“The rise of hate in the last two and a half years is alarming — so whether it’s the anti-Semitism, whether it’s living while black and all the instances we’re seeing, I think it should be alarm for all of the country,” said Louisiana Representative Cedric Richmond. “It’s time for this Congress to step up and address it all.”

Representative Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts, a freshman Democrat close to Omar, blamed the Trump administration for an increase in hateful rhetoric in the U.S. In a statement, she defended Omar and said threats of violence against her colleague are “unconscionable.”

Other Democrats said the decision to pursue the resolution was a surrender to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the pro-Israel lobby that supports policies of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, now out of favor with many younger voters in the party.

“Nobody asked me, but I would’ve said it’s a mistake,” said Representative John Yarmuth of Kentucky, the chairman of the House Budget Committee.

“If it’s limited to anti-Semitism then it makes Congresswoman Omar’s point for her, that it would be a move to pacify AIPAC. Because we wouldn’t do that for anybody else,” Yarmuth said. “Whatever we do is going to look like we’re responding specifically to her, and to AIPAC, so I’m probably leaning against doing one. If we do one I’d prefer it be more expansive.”

The Democrats’ fight is entering into presidential politics. Two 2020 Democratic candidates for president issued statements Wednesday condemning anti-Semitism while expressing concern that Omar was being singled out. Both Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and California Senator Kamala Harris sought to distinguish between anti-Semitism and legitimate questions about the U.S. policy regarding Israel.

Anti-Semitism Fight Hijacks Democrats' Bid to Kick Off Agenda

“We all have a responsibility to speak out against anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, homophobia, transphobia, racism, and all forms of hatred and bigotry, especially as we see a spike in hate crimes in America,” Harris said in a statement. “But 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.”

Trump entered the debate by attacking Democrats over failing to take up the measure. “It is shameful that House Democrats won’t take a stronger stand against Anti-Semitism in their conference,” tweeted the president, who himself has faced criticism for channeling anti-Semitic language.

Since they won the majority, Democrats have insisted that they can pursue bold policy and conduct thorough oversight of the Trump administration. The House Judiciary Committee this week requested documents from 81 individuals and entities in Trump’s orbit as part of an investigation of alleged foreign influence in the campaign and the president’s business dealings.

While most Democrats support rigorous oversight, they are divided on whether they have enough information to begin impeachment proceedings. Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, another freshman Democrat who has come under fire for controversial remarks, has promised to file articles of impeachment, even though Pelosi has said she plans to wait for a report from Special Counsel Robert Mueller.

At the same time, some Democrats are trying to find a path forward on Omar’s remarks that condemns other types of prejudice -- not just anti-Semitism.

Representative Jan Schakowsky, an Illinois Democrat, said the solution is likely to target “any kind of hate speech.” It’s not clear when it’ll come up on the House floor. “We’re working it out,” she said, adding that she still thinks and hopes it’ll pass this week.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.