Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) chalked up a big victory on Thursday when Republicans rallied to expel Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) from her seat on the Foreign Affairs Committee.
Omar, a frequent critic of Israel and its human rights record, has been a target of Republicans since her arrival on Capitol Hill in 2019, and McCarthy has vowed for years to remove her from the Foreign Affairs panel if Republicans flipped control of the House.
Following through was tougher than he initially thought.
With Republicans controlling just a slim majority in the lower chamber — and a handful of GOP lawmakers balking at the notion that one party would control the other’s committee posts — party leaders had delayed the vote indefinitely. As recently as Wednesday, the resolution appeared to be dead in the water.
Undeterred, McCarthy spoke with each of the holdouts one-by-one — some by phone, some in person in his office — in a methodical effort to alleviate their concerns and flip their votes.
When the bill hit the floor Thursday afternoon, the results of his lobbying became clear: Every GOP lawmaker supported the measure, except for Rep. Dave Joyce (R-Ohio), who voted present.
The expulsion prompted accusations from Democrats that Omar, one of just three Muslims in Congress, was targeted as “political revenge” for the two Republicans — Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene (Ga.) and Paul Gosar (Ariz.) — who were booted from their committees in the last Congress. Rep. Cori Bush (D-Mo.) said the move was “blatantly Islamophobic.”
For McCarthy, however, it marked a major triumph, demonstrating that he can unite a restive and discordant conference behind controversial proposals even after he was bruised, just weeks ago, by the humiliating balloting process that nearly denied him the Speaker’s gavel.
But he is sure to face much tougher legislative fights in the months ahead, including a high-stakes battle with President Biden over raising the debt ceiling and preventing a government default.
After Thursday’s expulsion vote, McCarthy did not dwell on the process that led to it, but amplified his argument that Omar’s past comments — some of which were deemed antisemitic by members of both parties — made her a national security risk on a committee with jurisdiction over U.S. foreign policy.
“It puts America in jeopardy, and I’m not going to do that under my watch,” McCarthy told reporters in the Capitol.
The win lends McCarthy and Republicans some momentum after a rocky start to the year. After predicting a huge red wave heading into November’s midterms, only to eke out a tiny majority, they then stumbled through a marathon, five-day Speaker’s vote — the longest since before the Civil War — that exposed deep divisions between the various factions of the conference.
Since then, Republicans have struggled to move some of their most prominent agenda items to the floor, including a proposal designed to curb migration at the southern border, which they hoped would be among their first victories under their new majority. Instead, internal disagreements between two Texas Republicans — Reps. Chip Roy and Tony Gonzales — have left the bill languishing in committee.
“When we deal with immigration, a lot of members have a lot of different positions. Both of those members from Texas have a lot to say,” McCarthy acknowledged Thursday. “I know members are working together to try to find a place to get there.”
Amid the difficult month, securing Omar’s expulsion from Foreign Affairs was a bright spot for McCarthy and the GOP. But it didn’t come easily.
When GOP leaders first made moves to bring the resolution to the floor in late January, Rep. Victoria Spartz (R-Ind.) announced her opposition in no uncertain terms, while Rep. Nancy Mace (R-S.C.) — who had declared her clear objections in December — also expressed misgivings.
Rep. Ken Buck (R-Colo.) added to McCarthy’s headaches on Friday, when he announced that he would also vote to keep Omar on the committee.
The message from the three dissenters was virtually identical: They had all opposed the Democrats’ effort to boot Greene and Gosar from their committees, and they would extend their principled objection to the Omar vote.
“Two wrongs do not make a right,” Spartz said last week.
McCarthy got to work, signaling he was ready to “add due process language” to the resolution, according to Spartz. It was enough to flip the vote of the Indiana holdout, and she announced her support for the resolution on Tuesday.
McCarthy then spoke with Buck by phone on Wednesday morning, when the Speaker promised the Colorado Republican that he’d work to reform the process governing committee dismissals, according to Buck. He, too, flipped to yes.
Mace huddled with McCarthy in the Speaker’s office on Thursday morning and emerged with the same message: McCarthy had vowed a “commitment,” she said, to reforms that would ensure members would be referred to the House Ethics Committee before there are any floor votes to strip them of their committee seats. She, too, was on board.
The vote Thursday was 218 to 211, along strict party lines, with one lawmaker, Rep. David Joyce (R-Ohio), voting “present.”
Afterwards, McCarthy announced, in vague terms, that he was ready to reform the process, saying he’ll form a bipartisan group to “clarify the rules” surrounding committee evictions, for this Congress and those to follow.
“I don’t know the definition exactly what all that’s going to mean,” he said. “I think that should be clear.”