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House Republicans express concern over party infighting, but not the Islamophobic rhetoric that set it off

Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) condemned months-long Islamophobic comments from Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.) on Nov. 30. (Video: JM Rieger/The Washington Post)
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House Republicans have decried the public feuding this week among a small group of GOP lawmakers as detrimental to the party’s ability to win back the House in the 2022 midterm elections because it distracts from their attacks on Democrats’ agenda.

But little has been said publicly by party leaders or rank-and-file members about whether they find the source of this feuding problematic: Islamophobic attacks by some Republicans against a Democratic congresswoman who is Muslim.

The party’s focus on the political ramifications of the infighting rather than the substance of the disagreement has led civil rights groups and Democrats to charge that Republicans are embracing, or at least enabling, bigotry.

“The GOP has made it very clear that they are not condemning this bigotry, this violent rhetoric, and in fact they are allowing this to become the political foundation to raise more money and to get more clout — and if there is any remaining traditional moral leadership within the GOP, I’m asking where it is,” said Nihad Awad, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR).

House Republican leaders have yet to publicly denounce the Islamophobic language employed by Reps. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.) and Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) to attack Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), including statements that the Muslim lawmaker supports terrorists and is “bloodthirsty,” while likening her to a suicide bomber.

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Instead, they have focused their remarks on the need for Republicans not to fight with each other publicly after Rep. Nancy Mace (R-S.C.) said earlier this week that Boebert and Greene were employing “racist tropes,” which led to a Twitter feud with Greene.

“Listen, we’re working as a team. … The issues people care about are not the Twitter infighting,” Rep. Elise Stefanik (N.Y.), chair of the Republican Conference, told reporters Tuesday. “They care about issues that impact their daily lives, and that’s what Republicans are focused on.”

On Friday at his weekly news conference, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) was asked why he hasn’t publicly condemned Boebert’s remarks. He responded that “this party is for anyone and everyone who craves freedom and supports religious liberty.”

He then defended Boebert, saying that she publicly apologized for her remarks and called Omar to discuss the issue.

“We should work together and talk to one another. In disagreements when something goes astray, you apologize for it, exactly what Lauren Boebert did,” McCarthy said.

Boebert’s apology was more complicated than McCarthy described.

She initially apologized “to anyone in the Muslim community I offended” and said she wanted to talk with Omar about her remarks and the two spoke by phone on Monday. Omar said she wanted Boebert to offer “a direct apology for falsely claiming she met me in an elevator, suggesting I was a terrorist, and for a history of anti-Muslim hate.”

Both have stated publicly that the Colorado congresswoman refused and Boebert said in a video posted to her Instagram account that as Omar continued to press for a public apology “I told Ilhan Omar that she should make a public apology to the American people for her anti-American, antisemitic, anti-police rhetoric.”

Omar then hung up on Boebert.

Republicans have long been critical of Omar for her criticisms of Israel, and members of both parties have denounced some of her statements as antisemitic. In 2019, House Democratic leaders swiftly condemned Omar’s suggestion that Israel’s allies in American politics were motivated by money rather than principle. Omar apologized later that day.

The Minnesota congresswoman said earlier this week that she has received death threats that she attributes to Republican attacks on her.

The decision by GOP leaders to not publicly condemn the most recent Islamophobic remarks follows their decision last month to rally to the defense of Rep. Paul A. Gosar (R-Ariz.) after he shared on social media an altered, animated video that depicts him killing Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and swinging two swords at President Biden. McCarthy and other leaders said Gosar’s video was wrong, but they spent most of their energy fighting Democrats’ decision to strip him of his committee assignments.

This has led to charges from Democrats that McCarthy has become so consumed with securing the GOP votes he will need to become speaker if Republicans take back the House in 2023, that he will tolerate any behavior by members of his conference.

“He is unwilling or unable to control his own members from inciting violence against other Members of Congress or encouraging bigotry and hatred. If he cannot lead his own caucus, he certainly will never be able to lead the House of Representatives,” five House Democratic caucus chairs said in a statement Thursday. They called for Boebert to be stripped of her committee assignments, citing her repeated “anti-Muslim” attacks against Omar.

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But the GOP leaders are not alone in their silence about the Islamophobic remarks — most rank-and-file Republicans have avoided criticizing Boebert and Greene and instead focused their remarks on the need to stop the infighting.

Rep. Mark Amodei (R-Nev.) said that while comments from Boebert, Greene and like-minded colleagues remain a “big distraction,” their remarks should not be seen as reflective of the entire Republican Party.

When pressed on whether that included the Islamophobic remarks aimed at Omar, he said: “I think everybody speaks for themselves, but I don’t speak for the party. And if I would indicate to you that I did, I think that would be a bit pretentious. That’s my opinion. So it’s like, ‘Hey, you’re responsible for what you say.’ But in terms of the overall brand, I think that’s a bigger project than one individual.”

Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Tex.), who has been accused by Democrats of making incendiary comments, said Greene and Boebert should be held to the same standard that party leaders apply to moderate members: Let them act or vote in the manner that best represents the voters who sent them to Congress.

“We get told all the time by Republican elected leadership that we have got to let much more moderate Republicans vote their district,” argued Gohmert. “But we don’t hear that from our Republican leadership about people that are from conservative districts. The push is always to have conservatives give up on what their constituents believe. Rather than pushing more moderates to support the party, the big majority.”

Earlier this year, McCarthy was more willing to speak out against extremist comments from members of his conference. He and other Republican leaders publicly condemned Greene’s remarks earlier this year comparing pandemic public health policies to the tactics used by Nazi Germany. But those condemnations have stopped even though the extremist rhetoric has not.

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The recent controversy started when a video posted on Twitter showed Boebert during an event last week in her Colorado district, where she shared a story about once riding a Capitol elevator with Omar and remarking to a Capitol Police officer: “Well, she doesn’t have a backpack. We should be fine.” That was followed by Boebert’s apology to anyone she offended and her tense phone call with Omar that escalated the situation.

Greene came to Boebert’s defense, and the Twitter spat with Mace ensued, in which Greene called Mace “the trash in the GOP conference” and accused the South Carolina Republican — who is a rape survivor and supports exceptions to an abortion ban for victims of rape and incest — as being “pro-abort.”

“This was a devastating and life-changing traumatic event. I had no hope for the future, turned to drugs and alcohol, dropped out of school, and never thought I’d make it,” Mace said Tuesday on Twitter about being sexually assaulted as a 16-year-old. She added that she was “beyond disgusted” by the Twitter exchange with Greene.

McCarthy separately called Mace and Greene into his office Tuesday to scold them for their public fight, according to two sources familiar with the meetings who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the private events.

On Wednesday morning, McCarthy convened his conference for an off-campus weekly meeting at the Capitol Hill Club, where the focus of his remarks was not the Islamophobic rhetoric embraced and employed by the far right flank of the party, but on his frustration with the infighting, according to people familiar with his remarks.

“We’re sure shooting ourselves in the foot,” Rep. Don Bacon (R-Neb.) said of McCarthy’s message to members. “The polling is significantly in our favor right now. We’ve got a huge lead on almost every issue. Why are we shooting ourselves in the foot? Just stop it. Those are my words, but that’s how I would summarize it.”

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Several Republicans this week skirted the question about whether the party’s leadership or Republicans more broadly should condemn offensive or bigoted remarks by their members, noting that as a “big tent party” — as McCarthy has often called his conference — commentary of all stripes will be thrown around.

“Look, we’re a large conference, and we’re a diverse conference, and that’s never an easy task for any leader up here as Speaker Pelosi knows as well. It’s part of that leadership role,” said Rep. Kevin Brady (R-Tex.), who is retiring after serving almost 25 years in the House.

Several moderate Republicans in competitive districts refrained from criticizing McCarthy for his handling of the week’s fracas and said they were not concerned by the rising influence of the far-right flank.

Rep. Nicole Malliotakis (R-N.Y.), who defeated a Democrat last year to win a district that included Staten Island and part of Brooklyn, said the party needs to stay focused on issues related to infrastructure spending, the economy and policing. She said moderate Republicans would not be pushing McCarthy to speak out against Boebert and Greene’s behavior more forcefully.

“I think he’s given the right message: Stay united — this fight is against them,” Malliotakis said referring to Democrats

Mace, however, said it’s a mistake for the party not to call out incendiary or bigoted comments — regardless of who is making them.

“I’m an equal opportunity person to condemn remarks that are racist or bigoted or religious bigotry. I think that’s important for us as normal Americans, as humans to show compassion to one another, even when we disagree,” she said in an interview. “I don’t agree with Congresswoman Omar on 99 percent of the things, but that doesn’t mean we treat her like, you know, she’s a terrorist. Like that’s just totally uncalled for.”