WASHINGTON — The House voted Tuesday to condemn as racist President Donald Trump’s attacks against four congresswomen of color, but only after the debate over the president’s language devolved into a bitterly partisan brawl that showcased deep rifts over race, ethnicity and political ideology in the age of Trump.
The measure, the first in more than 100 years that the House has approved that was aimed at rebuking the president, passed nearly along party lines, 240-187, after one of the most polarizing exchanges on the House floor in recent times. Only four Republicans and the House’s lone independent, Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan, voted with all Democrats to condemn Trump.
“I know racism when I see it, I know racism when I feel it, and at the highest level of government, there’s no room for racism,” thundered Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., an icon of the civil rights movement who was nearly beaten to death in Alabama in 1965.
Some Republicans were just as adamant in their defense of Trump: “What has really happened here is that the president and his supporters have been forced to endure months of allegations of racism,” said Rep. Dan Meuser, R-Pa. “This ridiculous slander does a disservice to our nation.”
Republicans ground the proceedings to a halt shortly before the House was to vote on the nonbinding resolution, which calls Trump’s tweets and verbal volleys “racist comments that have legitimized increased fear and hatred of new Americans and people of color.” Republicans voted en masse against the measure, which was the Democrats’ response to Trump’s attacks on Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Ayanna S. Pressley of Massachusetts and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, who he said should “go back” to their countries, a well-worn racist trope that he has continued to employ in the days since.
“There’s no excuse for any response to those words but a swift and strong, unified condemnation,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said as the House debated the resolution. “Every single member of this institution, Democratic and Republican, should join us in condemning the president’s racist tweets.”
As Republicans rose to protest, Pelosi turned toward them on the House floor and picked up her speech, her voice rising as she added, “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.”
Rep. Doug Collins of Georgia, the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee, made a formal objection to the remarks, charging that they had violated the rules of decorum in the House, which call for lawmakers to avoid impugning the motives of their colleagues or the president. It was a stunning turn for a resolution that was drafted in response to Trump’s own incendiary language.
Trump on Tuesday denied that his tweets were racist and implored House Republicans to reject the measure. The president raged on Twitter against the resolution, calling it a “con game.” He renewed his harsh criticism of the congresswomen.
“Those Tweets were NOT Racist,” Trump wrote. “I don’t have a Racist bone in my body! The so-called vote to be taken is a Democrat con game. Republicans should not show ‘weakness’ and fall into their trap.”
The vote Tuesday evening marked a show of unity for Democrats who had been squabbling for weeks — and a test of Republican principles. In the end, the only Republicans to cross party lines were Reps. Fred Upton of Michigan, Susan W. Brooks of Indiana, Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania and Will Hurd of Texas, the House’s only black Republican.
But as the debate played out, the scene devolved into a spectacle. Republicans sought to turn the tables and condemn Pelosi for her remarks about Trump — which many Democrats had echoed in their own speeches before her — touching off tumult as officials scrambled to review House rules and determine how to proceed.
At one point, Rep. Emanuel Cleaver II, D-Mo., who was presiding in the House when Republicans challenged Pelosi’s words, banged the gavel, rose from the marble dais, and stormed off the House floor. “We aren’t ever, ever going to pass up, it seems, an opportunity to escalate, and that’s what this is,” Cleaver said, his voice rising in frustration. “We want to just fight.”
For their part, Republicans took to the floor not to defend the president’s remarks but to condemn Democrats for what they called a breach of decorum for calling Trump out.
Ultimately, it was left to Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, the majority leader, to recite the official ruling that Pelosi had, in fact, violated a House rule against characterizing an action as “racist.” The move by Republicans to have her words stricken from the record then failed along party lines, and Pelosi was unrepentant.
“I stand by my statement,” she said as she strode through the Capitol. “I’m proud of the attention being called to it, because what the president said was completely inappropriate.”
While Democrats were publicly unanimous in their support of the resolution, some moderate lawmakers from Republican-leaning districts that backed Trump in 2016 privately voiced deep discomfort about it. They said that while the president’s comments had been racist, the party was playing into his hands by spending so much time on the House floor condemning his remarks, according to centrist lawmakers and senior aides who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe internal discussions.
They were particularly angry about being asked to vote to condone Pelosi’s breach of the rules, which two of them described as throwing moderate lawmakers “under the bus” in order to help the speaker shore up support among progressives who had been alienated by her feud with Ocasio-Cortez and her allies. One lawmaker described the upshot of the extraordinary episode as “another week burned on his terms instead of ours.”
The scene underscored the intensity of feeling prompted by Trump’s latest comments. Republicans spent the day arguing that Democrats, particularly Ocasio-Cortez’s so-called Squad, were no better.
“In those tweets, I see nothing that references anybody’s race — not a thing — I don’t see anyone’s name being referenced in the tweets, but the president’s referring to people, congresswomen, who are anti-American,” said Rep. Sean P. Duffy, R-Wis. “And lo and behold, everybody in this chamber knows who he’s talking about.”
Duffy’s comments prompted an angry response from Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., who sought to register an official objection. She said the use of the word “anti-American” was “completely inappropriate” but was not allowed to formally ask to have the words stricken.
At a closed-door meeting of House Democrats on Tuesday morning, Pelosi set the stage for the debate, calling the four freshman congresswomen “our sisters,” and saying the insults to which Trump subjected them echo hurtful and offensive remarks he makes every day.
“So this is a resolution based in who we are as a people, as well as a recognition of the unacceptability of what his goals were,” Pelosi told Democrats, according to an aide present for the private meeting who described her remarks on condition of anonymity. “This is, I hope, one where we will get Republican support. If they can’t support condemning the words of the president, well, that’s a message in and of itself.”
But Republican leaders refrained from criticizing Trump, at least directly, and top House Republicans lobbied their colleagues to oppose the resolution.
Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California, the House Republican leader and a close ally of the president’s, said he would oppose the resolution, and when asked whether Trump’s tweets were racist, replied flatly, “No.”
Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. and the Senate majority leader, did say all lawmakers should dial back their rhetoric. But he did not take issue with the president, telling reporters who asked whether Trump’s tweets were racist, “The president’s not a racist.”
Earlier, Trump tried to shift the focus to what he called “HORRIBLE” things said by the four liberal freshmen congresswomen, who have been among the most outspoken in their party in their criticisms of him, including at a news conference Monday where they described Trump as racist, xenophobic, misogynistic and criminal.
“This should be a vote on the filthy language, statements and lies told by the Democrat Congresswomen, who I truly believe, based on their actions, hate our Country,” Trump tweeted.
While some Democrats are pressing for a stronger resolution of censure, House leaders have opted instead for a narrower measure based on Trump’s latest remarks, in an effort to generate a unanimous vote in their party.
During the meeting Tuesday, Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., chairman of the Rules Committee, warned members to take care with their language during the debate, including checking with the official in charge of enforcing floor procedures to make sure their speeches would not violate House rules against making personal references to the president on the floor.
Pelosi advised Democrats to focus on how Trump’s “words were racist,” which would keep them in compliance with the rules. Later, after Collins objected to her speech, Pelosi shot back that she had cleared them in advance to ensure they were within bounds.
It is virtually unheard-of for Congress to rebuke a sitting president. The last one to be challenged was William Howard Taft, who served from 1909 to 1913. He was accused of having tried to influence a disputed Senate election, but in the end, the Senate passed a watered-down resolution and the phrase “ought to be severely condemned” was removed.
While the vote Tuesday was symbolic and nonbinding, the debate dramatized the conflict between Democrats and a president who has organized his agenda and his reelection campaign around stoking racial controversy, and casting the group of progressive stars as dangerous extremists to be feared.
Among other things, the resolution declares that the House “believes that immigrants and their descendants have made America stronger,” that “those who take the oath of citizenship are every bit as American as those whose families have lived in the United States for many generations,” and that the House “is committed to keeping America open to those lawfully seeking refuge and asylum from violence and oppression, and those who are willing to work hard to live the American Dream, no matter their race, ethnicity, faith, or country of origin.”
One after another, Republicans rose to reject the criticism of Trump, arguing that it was Ocasio-Cortez and her colleagues, who have sometimes used coarse language to describe the president and his policies, who should be rebuked and punished for their words and conduct.
“When we consider the power of this chamber to legislate for the common good, I wonder why my colleagues have become so eager to attack the president they are willing to sacrifice the rules, precedent and the integrity of the people’s house for an unprecedented vote that undercuts its very democratic processes,” Collins said.
The Democratic unity on the vote could prove short-lived. Moments after the measure passed, Rep. Al Green, D-Texas, went to the House floor to reintroduce his articles of impeachment against the president. If Green can force a debate, the divisions between liberals and more moderate Democrats will almost certainly reemerge.