By Justin Sink
Republican leaders on Friday moved quickly to denounce Rep. Don Young's racial slur against Hispanics.
Leaders of the House ripped Young, while Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus sought to distance Young from his party, which is trying to win back Hispanic voters after a disastrous election in which President Obama won more than 70 percent of their votes.
Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said there was "no excuse" for Young's description of Latino workers on his family farm as "wetbacks."
Young released an initial statement that said he did not intend for the comment to offend.
On Friday afternoon, he issued a second statement apologizing for using an "insensitive term" and a "poor choice of words." He also said he was sorry it was taking attention away from immigration reform.
"I apologize for the insensitive term I used during an interview in Ketchikan, Alaska," he said. "There was no malice in my heart or intent to offend; it was a poor choice of words. That word, and the negative attitudes that come with it, should be left in the 20th century, and I’m sorry that this has shifted our focus away from comprehensive immigration reform."
Young's initial comment came during an interview broadcast Thursday with KRDB-FM radio in Alaska about the immigration reform legislation that is being crafted in Congress.
"My father had a ranch. We used to have 50 to 60 wetbacks to pick tomatoes," he told the station. "It takes two people to pick the same tomatoes now. It’s all done by machine."
"We are a welcoming and tolerant nation, and there is no excuse for this type of offensive language in public discourse," House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) said in a statement provided to The Hill.
Democrats have seized on the comments, with the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee sending out press releases calling on more than three dozen House Republicans to denounce Young's comments.
Separately, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said Young's comments were "deeply hurtful, offensive and inappropriate." Pelosi also said Young's initial response was lacking and that he should apologize for remarks "that were not appropriate in his youth or now."
The sharp statements from Republicans hinted at worries within the GOP that Young's comments could damage the party's image with Hispanics.
A long line of Republican leaders since the 2012 election have urged their party's members to be more inclusive — and less bone-headed in their statements.
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, for example, told Republicans to "stop being the stupid party" at a national retreat in January.
In one bid to appeal to Hispanics, Republicans in the Senate and House have been working this year to move immigration reform legislation through Congress. Legislation by a group of Democratic and Republican senators could be released as early as April
Priebus said Young's comments did not represent the party, which he said sought to represent hope for all Americans.
"The words used by Rep. Young emphatically do not represent the beliefs of the Republican Party," he said in a statement. "As I have continued to say, everyone in this country deserves to be treated with dignity and respect. Our party represents freedom and opportunity for every American and a beacon of hope to those seeking liberty throughout the world. Offensive language and ethnic slurs have no place in our public discourse."
Senate Minority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) said the comment could hurt Republicans and their relationship with the Hispanic community.
"Migrant workers come to America looking for opportunity and a way to provide a better life for their families,” Cornyn, the second-ranking Senate Republican, said in a statement Friday.
“They do not come to this country to hear ethnic slurs and derogatory language from elected officials,” he said. “The comments used by Rep. Young do nothing to elevate our party, political discourse or the millions who come here looking for economic opportunity.”
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a leading Senate negotiator on immigration reform, also slammed Young.
"Don Young's comments were offensive and have no place in our party or in our nation's discourse. He should apologize immediately," McCain wrote in a tweet.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), the most high-profile Hispanic Republican in Congress, did not have a comment on Young because he is “observing a religious holiday,” according to his office.
— This story was first posted at 11:41 a.m. and was last updated at 4:06 p.m.
— Molly K. Hooper contributed to this report.