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  •   GOP Halts Bid to Call Group Racist

    By Juliet Eilperin
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Wednesday, March 24, 1999; Page A4

    The House erupted into a bitter debate over racism yesterday after GOP leaders blocked an effort to condemn a group with controversial racial views that had hosted members of Congress.

    Arguing that Democrats were simply trying to embarrass prominent Republicans, including Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (Miss.), for appearing before the Council of Conservative Citizens, House Republican Conference Chairman J.C. Watts (Okla.) offered his own, more general resolution protesting bigotry. But the measure offered by Watts, the only African American Republican in Congress, failed to garner the two-thirds vote required for passage under special rules.

    "We cannot possibly condemn each bigoted organization, person or act individually," Watts said, adding that singling out one group would trivialize the issue: "Why do we make racism and bigotry that small?"

    The controversy over the St. Louis-based Council of Conservative Citizens, which advocates the preservation of the white race, erupted late last year after Rep. Robert L. Barr Jr. (R-Ga.) spoke to the group. Barr later condemned the organization, as did Lott, who had appeared before the council in 1992 and on at least one other occasion.

    Leaders of the group have insisted their purpose is to serve as advocates for whites. But the group has promoted on its Web site and in its newspaper writings suggesting integration and intermarriage lead to "mongrelization," and that preservation of the white race is essential if the fundamental values of the United States are to survive.

    In attempting to defuse the issue, Republicans recently criticized House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) for speaking at least once in 1976 to the Metro South Citizens Council, a St. Louis branch of the precursor to the Council of Conservative Citizens. Gephardt was running for Congress for the first time then. His staff described his appearance as a routine campaign stop at a picnic for a community group in a St. Louis park.

    Nearly two months ago, Reps. Robert Wexler (D-Fla.) and Michael P. Forbes (R-N.Y.) introduced a measure condemning the "racism and bigotry espoused by the Council of Conservative Citizens," as well as "all manifestations and expressions of racism, bigotry, and religious intolerance wherever they occur."

    On Wednesday, Watts introduced his own resolution, which "denounces all those who practice or promote racism, anti-Semitism, ethnic prejudice, or religious intolerance."

    Watts said he offered his measure as a way to keep the two parties from getting into a "tit-for-tat" argument over bigotry.

    "Racism is too painful, it's too hurtful to use it as a partisan tool," he said in an interview. "I talked to the leadership about it and I could see what it was becoming: 'You name this group, I'll name this group.' "

    But the two parties squared off on the House floor yesterday afternoon, fiercely arguing during a time usually reserved for noncontroversial measures. Rep. John Conyers Jr. (Mich.), the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, blasted the GOP for blocking action on civil rights legislation and called the Watts resolution "a futile attempt to show the country they're really not Neanderthals."

    "We want action," Conyers added. "We can move on hate crime legislation. Now they ask us in good faith to support these words. We can't do it."

    Wexler noted that Congress condemned Nation of Islam leader Khalid Abdul Muhammad for making racist remarks at Kean College in New Jersey in 1994 and observed that at that time there "was no outcry about singling [out] one man for criticism."

    "When it's a black person who is a racist, it's okay for Congress to condemn him," Wexler added, "But if it's a white person or white group who is a racist, Congress does nothing."

    Watts replied that while he has been the target of Democrats' racist statements in Oklahoma, "my friend from Florida has never come to the floor to defend me."

    Thirty-six Democrats crossed party lines to support the measure, producing a final vote of 254 to 152 with 24 voting present. Only one Republican, Mark Sanford (S.C.), voted against the resolution, while Forbes voted present.

    Watts said he would support voting on the Wexler-Forbes measure if his resolution failed, though no vote has been scheduled. Assistant Majority Leader Rick Lazio (R-N.Y.) said that he believed the House would take up the issue in some form.

    Staff writer Thomas B. Edsall contributed to this report.

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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