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House Republican leaders move to strip Rep. Steve King of his committee assignments over comments about white nationalism

Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) in a Jan. 10 interview asked how the terms “white nationalist” and “white supremacist” became offensive. (Video: Patrick Martin/The Washington Post)

A panel of Republican leaders voted unanimously Monday to keep veteran Iowa lawmaker Steve King off House committees, a firm rebuke to an influential opponent of illegal immigration who sparked outrage last week after openly questioning whether the term “white supremacist” was offensive.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said the decision by the Republican Steering Committee, which seats lawmakers on House committees, followed his own recommendation and was meant to send a message about the GOP at large.

“That is not the party of Lincoln,” he said of King’s comments. “It is definitely not American. All people are created equal in America, and we want to take a very strong stance about that.”

King, who was elected to a ninth term in November, served on the House Judiciary, Agriculture and Small Business committees in the last Congress. The decision to effectively strip him of those posts came as House Democrats pondered rebukes of their own and as leading Republicans across the party spoke out against him.

On Monday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said there is “no place in the Republican Party, the Congress or the country for an ideology of racial supremacy of any kind,” while Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), a former presidential nominee, called on King to resign.

The recent controversy was touched off when King asked in a New York Times interview published last week, “White nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization — how did that language become offensive?”

It followed a long string of remarks disparaging of immigrants and minorities, as well as a seeming embrace of far-right foreign politicians and parties that have been openly hostile to those same groups.

King, in a statement, said, “Leader McCarthy’s decision to remove me from committees is a political decision that ignores the truth. . . . Ultimately, I told him, ‘You have to do what you have to do, and I will do what I have to do.’” King did not speak to reporters after leaving an hour-long meeting with McCarthy on Monday evening, before the steering vote.

House Democrats could bring up a measure condemning King as soon as Tuesday. Rep. James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.), the party’s No. 3 leader, on Monday said he would introduce a resolution to express “disapproval of Mr. King’s comments and condemnation of white nationalism and white supremacy in all forms.”

“I do so invoking the words of another King, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who, if he had been allowed to live, would be celebrating his 90th birthday” Tuesday, he said on the House floor. “Dr. King counseled that, ‘We are going to be made to repent, not just for the hateful words and deeds of bad people, but for the appalling silence of good people.’”

But for some Democrats, Clyburn’s reproach of King — which would be similar to the action taken against Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) after he shouted “you lie” at President Barack Obama during a September 2009 speech on health care — did not go far enough.

Assistant House Speaker Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.), the fourth-ranking Democratic leader, called King’s comments “blatantly racist” and said “every action we should take should be taken” and expressed support for a formal reprimand or censure.

“This needs to stop,” he said. “Enough with him getting away with this stuff. This is nonsense.”

Two Democrats — Reps. Bobby L. Rush (Ill.) and Tim Ryan (Ohio) — separately filed resolutions to censure King and indicated they would force a vote on them this week. Censure is a rarely invoked punishment for conduct bringing dishonor on the House, the most serious punishment that can be levied on one of its members short of expulsion.

King’s words and actions have been a frequent subject of controversy, but never before have they prompted any concrete sanction.

Shortly before the November election, for instance, King lashed out at the media after The Washington Post reported that he had met with members of a far-right Austrian party with historical Nazi ties after flying to Europe for a trip financed by a Holocaust memorial group. Republican leaders largely remained silent.

This time, more Republicans than ever are speaking out, and last week a prominent state senator announced he would seek to unseat King in the 2020 Republican primary.

Reacting to the loss of King’s committee posts, the challenger, Randy Feenstra, said Monday that voters had “lost their seat at the table because of Congressman King’s caustic behavior.”

King is a figure of prominence in the House GOP, not only due to the controversies he has stoked but also as a former Judiciary subcommittee chairman, a leader in opposing legalized abortion and chairman of the Conservative Opportunity Society, an internal caucus of right-wing House Republicans that meets regularly.

After the Times interview was published, King issued a statement trying to clean up the controversy and later spoke on the House floor to say that he had made a “freshman mistake” by taking a reporter’s call and that the comments were “snippets” taken out of context of a large conversation.

That conversation, he said, was about “how did that language get injected into our political dialog? Who does that? How does it get done?”

But members of both parties have become increasingly weary of the repeated cycle of offense and outrage surrounding King. Among those speaking out against King this time include Rep. Liz Cheney (Wyo.), chairwoman of the House Republican Conference, and Sen. Tim Scott (S.C.), the most prominent black Republican in Congress.

McConnell on Monday became the highest-ranking Republican to speak out against King.

“I have no tolerance for such positions and those who espouse these views are not supporters of American ideals and freedoms,” McConnell said in a written statement to The Washington Post. “Rep. King’s statements are unwelcome and unworthy of his elected position. If he doesn’t understand why ‘white supremacy’ is offensive, he should find another line of work.”

Also Monday, the leader of the Anti-Defamation League called on Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and McCarthy to censure King and remove him as the top Republican on a House Judiciary subcommittee.

Jonathan Greenblatt, the group’s chief executive and national director, said in a letter to the House leaders that it was the second time that he had made such a request.

“When it comes to Rep. King, we are beyond substantive disagreements. Rep. King has brought dishonor onto the House of Representatives,” Greenblatt wrote. By censuring King, he added, “you will make clear that his actions were deeply offensive, wrong, and that the U.S. House of Representatives will not tolerate anti-Semitism or bigotry in any form.”

Democratic leaders, managing a House majority, have been cautious in their comments on King. Censures of House members in the recent past have been done on a largely bipartisan basis following extensive investigations by the House Ethics Committee.

Pelosi on Monday left open the possibility that there could be votes on multiple sanctions for King, ranging from disapproval to censure.

The last censure took place in 2010, under Pelosi’s first speakership, when Rep. Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.) was rebuked on a 333-to-79 vote for financial misdeeds. Seventy-seven Democrats and two Republicans opposed censure.

Rush said a serious response was warranted by King’s repeated statements: “The U.S. Congress cannot be a platform for Steve King and those of his ilk. From Charleston to Charlottesville to Chicago to California, there is no home for this behavior, especially the floor of the United States House of Representatives.”

“Anything short of censure,” he added, “would be shallow.”

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