WASHINGTON ― It was always going to be a contentious vote.
In response to President Donald Trump telling four congresswomen to “go back” to their original countries, Democrats offered a resolution condemning the president’s words as racist. But the House descended into even more chaos than expected Tuesday as Republicans objected to Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) calling Trump’s comments “racist” ― technically a violation of House rules ― and Democrats upheld House rules in one instance and ignored them in others.
If there was any doubt that Republicans are in lockstep with Trump, the contentious debate and vote Tuesday should put it to rest. The House voted 240-187 to denounce Trump’s statement as racist, with four Republicans ― Fred Upton of Michigan, Susan Brooks of Indiana, Will Hurd of Texas and Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania ― joining all Democrats in support of the resolution.
But the vote was only a small part of the mayhem on the House floor.
The resolution was a tightly worded document meant to castigate the president for his racist attack on Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.). Democrats had already tortured themselves on the exact wording of the resolution, which carries the same force as a press release. There was an internal debate that spilled out on the floor Monday evening about whether Democrats should actually call Trump’s comments racist ― daring vulnerable Republicans to vote against the resolution ― or whether they should just refer to the tweets and try to divide Republicans as much as possible on the vote.
Ultimately, they went with calling the comments as most members saw it: racist, and they decided it was better to unite their own caucus rather than trying to divide Republicans.
But GOP lawmakers had their own plan.
Republicans had been looking to seize upon a Democrat violating the House rules, which state that a member can’t impugn the president by, among many other things, saying that he or she had made a racist statement. So when Pelosi did just that, the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee, Doug Collins of Georgia, leaped at the opportunity to potentially have Pelosi’s words taken down. (Under House rules, if a member’s comments are struck down, he or she may not speak for the rest of the day.)
The Republicans made the objection when Pelosi said:
“Every single member of this institution should join us in condemning the president’s racist tweets. To do anything less would be a shocking rejection of our values and a shameful abdication of our oath of office to protect the American people.”
Democrats consulted with the House parliamentarian for more than an hour before it looked as if they were ready to make a ruling. The situation was complicated, however, by the member who was presiding over the chamber at the time. Former Congressional Black Caucus Chairman Emmanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.) was acting as the speaker for the debate, and he refused to rule in favor of the Republicans.
Cleaver made a short speech in which he castigated his GOP colleagues for “escalating” all the racial tensions that had flared up over Trump’s attack on the four first-term congresswomen. Cleaver finished the speech by abandoning the chair and not ruling.
Eventually, Democrats found another member who would navigate the situation. Under the advice of the parliamentarian, Democrats ruled that Pelosi’s words were out of order. However, they did not strike them down.
Collins called for a recorded vote, and, by party line, Democrats voted to not strike down the speaker’s comments, 190-232, with newfound independent Justin Amash of Michigan joining the Democrats. (Amash also eventually voted with Democrats for the underlying resolution.)
Democrats then voted on a motion to allow the speaker to make additional comments in the day. That vote was also party-line, 231-190, with Amash joining Republicans this time to prevent Pelosi from speaking again.
By the time the vote was over, it was clearer than ever how Republicans and Democrats felt about each other. Democrats saw their counterparts as bad-faith defenders of racism, willing to do anything in service to Trump. Republicans saw Democrats as race-baiting rule-breakers.
Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) took to the House floor and waved around the Jefferson Manual ― a rulebook of congressional decorum written by the slave-owning Thomas Jefferson that the House still uses to settle issues of decency ― saying Democrats had put a stain upon the House of Representatives.
“Today is a day historians will write about. It is a sad day for this House,” McCarthy said, seemingly in reference to Democrats ignoring rules that mandate Pelosi’s words be struck down. (Ironically, McCarthy was also violating House rules by using Jefferson’s Manual as a prop.)
To Republicans, there was nothing contradictory about defending the repeated racist attacks from the president upon four of their colleagues. In fact, Rep. Sean Duffy (R-Wis.) came to the floor Tuesday to call his colleagues “anti-American” while willfully ignoring the racism underlying the president’s attacks.
“I see nothing that references anybody’s race. Not a thing. I don’t see anybody’s name being referenced in the tweets,” Duffy said.
Republicans were silent about Duffy’s decorum, and none of them took to the floor to call out Trump’s attacks. Instead, they focused on the rules violation, with Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) calling the debate “beneath the dignity of the House” and Carol Miller (R-Ariz.) calling it “political nonsense.”
Democrats, for their part, half relished in the attention their nonbinding resolution was suddenly getting. But they also seemed genuinely torn about the procedural implications of ignoring rules related to remarks that are ruled out of order.
When Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.) took the floor to carefully call the president’s remarks racist ― without actually mentioning the president ― Democratic leaders seemed just as frustrated as Republicans.
“Saying a Mexican judge cannot be fair because of his heritage is racist,” Swalwell said. “Saying immigrants from Mexico are rapists is racist. Saying there were ‘good people on both sides’ in Charlottesville is racist. Calling African countries ‘shithole countries’ is racist.”
Republicans objected, but because Swalwell’s comments were just hanging out there without a noun, it was allowed.
He asked that the word “shithole” be struck from the record, per House rules about language, and then read his statement into the record again.
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