WASHINGTON — A bitterly divided House on Thursday ousted Representative Ilhan Omar, Democrat of Minnesota, from the Foreign Affairs Committee over past comments about Israel that were widely condemned as antisemitic, as Republicans moved to cater to the demands of right-wing members and mete out reprisals to their political adversaries.
The 218 to 211 vote, with one member voting “present,” settled a partisan score that has been festering since 2021, when the House, then controlled by Democrats, stripped Representatives Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia and Paul Gosar of Arizona of their committee assignments for social media posts in which they endorsed violence against Democrats.
The removal of Ms. Omar delivered on a threat that Speaker Kevin McCarthy of California made at the time to retaliate if his party took the House majority by removing Democrats whom Republicans regarded as unfit to serve on committees. Last week, he unilaterally removed Representatives Adam Schiff and Eric Swalwell, both of California, from the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, where membership is appointed and thus not subject to a vote.
Mr. McCarthy’s decision to force the removal of Ms. Omar, a step that some of his rank-and-file resisted, in the earliest days of his new majority demonstrated his determination to ingratiate himself with the hard-right Republican base, which has made the Somali-born Ms. Omar a target for some of its most vicious attacks. It was also a bid to curry favor with pro-Israel groups and evangelical voters and to drive a wedge among Democrats, many of whom had condemned her comments.
In 2019, Ms. Omar drew criticism from Democrats and Republicans alike for tweeting that certain pro-Israel groups were “all about the Benjamins, baby,” appearing to reference hundred-dollar bills in what was seen as invoking an antisemitic trope about Jews being greedy, a comment for which she later apologized. Two years later, Ms. Omar seemingly equated “atrocities” carried out by the United States military to those committed by terrorist groups like the Taliban and Hamas; she later said she had not meant to compare them.
A Divided Congress
The 118th Congress is underway, with Republicans controlling the House and Democrats holding the Senate.
Yet during an unusually raw debate on the House floor on Thursday, prominent Democrats including many Jewish members stood alongside Ms. Omar’s closest friends in Congress to defend her in passionate, and at times emotional speeches, accusing Republicans of hypocrisy, xenophobia and racism for targeting her while saying nothing about antisemitic remarks by members of their own party, some of whom have associated with Holocaust deniers.
“A blatant double standard is being applied here. Something just doesn’t add up. And what is the difference between Rep. Omar and these members? Could it be the way that she looks? Could it be her religious practices?” said Representative Gregory Meeks of New York, the ranking member on the Foreign Affairs Committee.
Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York was more direct: “This is about targeting women of color in the United States of America,” she said during brief but heated remarks.
Republicans were comparatively sober as they made the case for exiling Ms. Omar.
“Individuals who hold such hateful view should rightly be barred from that type of committee,” said Representative Michael Lawler of New York. “Words matter, rhetoric matters, it leads to harm, and so the congresswoman is being held accountable for her words and her actions.”
Still, the process of corralling votes to oust Ms. Omar highlighted the challenges Mr. McCarthy faces as he tries to make good on his promised agenda with a razor-thin majority that has already proved to be unruly. The effort stalled and nearly faltered because of the disquiet of some Republicans about being seen as hypocritical after they railed against the removals of Ms. Greene and Mr. Gosar from committees, and about the precedent set by expelling a lawmaker for her views and statements, particularly by a party that routinely condemns “cancel culture.”
Ms. Omar’s ouster capped off an opening month in the House that has been defined by political jockeying and messaging far more than serious policy ventures. During a history-making struggle to claim the speaker’s gavel, Mr. McCarthy provided a raft of concessions to his hard-right detractors to win their votes and has spent the weeks since paying off those debts, including by placing ultraconservative members on powerful committees and forming a new panel to investigate the “weaponization of government.” The House has also passed an array of legislation — all doomed in the Senate — that would defund I.R.S. enforcement against tax cheats, prosecute some abortion providers and end federal coronavirus vaccine mandates and precautions.
The stage was set this week for Ms. Omar’s expulsion when Representative George Santos of New York — the embattled Republican freshman who has admitted to having misrepresented his background and is facing multiple investigations for fraud and campaign finance violations — announced that he would temporarily remove himself from the House committees on Small Business and Science, Space and Technology, to which he was appointed last month. Mr. Santos had become a lightning rod for accusations of a double standard, as Democrats scorned Mr. McCarthy for protecting him while targeting Ms. Omar, Mr. Schiff and Mr. Swalwell.
But the dam began to break only after Mr. McCarthy struck a tentative agreement with Representative Ken Buck of Colorado, one of the more conservative naysayers, to ensure that members facing punitive actions in the future would have a robust appeals process. Representative Victoria Spartz of Indiana was the first of the public Republican holdouts to announce that was enough to change her vote, to support Ms. Omar’s removal.
“I think setting a precedent of allowing an appeal process for the speaker’s and majority-party removal decisions is particularly important to freedom-loving legislators who usually are on the receiving end of issues like this,” Ms. Spartz said in a statement on Tuesday.
But the gesture was not enough for some other Republicans, who called the promises of an appeals process an empty one.
“The chance to appeal is a ‘whereas’ clause or statement, which basically has no meaning; it’s not binding,” Representative Nancy Mace of South Carolina told reporters late Wednesday. “It’s like saying the sky is blue — there’s no teeth behind it.”
The text of the resolution notes that any House member has the right to appeal a decision such as the one made against Ms. Omar by making a case to the Ethics Committee. Democrats called it a farce, since the speaker effectively controls the panel.
“There’s not really any due process there, when he’s making it so that he’s the initiator, getting her off, and then he’s going to make the decision on the back end,” Meeks said in reference to Mr. McCarthy. “That’s just a hoax.”