By Russell Berman - 07/25/13 12:33 AM EDT
Top House Republicans issued a rare rebuke of one of their own members Wednesday, denouncing comments by Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) that depicted many immigrant children as criminal drug runners.
Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) called his remarks “wrong” while Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) said they were “inexcusable.” They were joined in condemning King by several other Republicans important to the immigration debate.
The swift slap-down reflected the widespread fear among GOP leaders that inflammatory statements from hardliners like King will damage the party at a time when Boehner and Cantor are trying to push some form of immigration legislation through the conservative House.
“For every one who’s a valedictorian, there’s another 100 out there that weigh 130 pounds, and they’ve got calves the size of cantaloupes because they’re hauling 75 pounds of marijuana across the desert,” King said in the Newsmax interview. “These people would be legalized with the same act.”
The comments sparked a familiar uproar on Capitol Hill, as Democrats rushed out reactions and members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus took to the House floor to condemn King.
Rep. Rubén Hinojosa (D-Texas), chairman of the Hispanic Caucus, characterized King’s comments as “horrible and certainly not true.”
But Republicans didn’t wait long before chiming in with their own denunciations.
In a statement Tuesday night, Boehner said: “What he said is wrong. There can be honest disagreements about policy without using hateful language. Everyone needs to remember that.”
Cantor said in a separate statement, “I strongly disagree with his characterization of the children of immigrants and find the comments inexcusable.”
Boehner and Cantor have each backed a path to citizenship for those immigrant children, and Cantor is working on legislation to address that population.
King’s comments also drew criticism from the chairman of the immigration subcommittee, Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.), and from a conservative at the center of the House debate, Rep. Raúl Labrador (R-Idaho).
“I think his comments were irresponsible and reprehensible,” Labrador said. “I think what he said was out of touch with the conference. There’s nobody in the conference who would say such a thing, and I hope if he thought about it, he wouldn’t say such a thing again.”
But King did not back down.
“You should go ask them if they actually watched the tape. Ask them if they actually read the text,” he told The Hill, referring to Boehner and Cantor. “That would illuminate a lot. There’s a lot of people around here that have opinions that aren’t founded in fact.”
Asked if he wanted to clarify his comments, King replied: “No. What I said is what I said.”
He also defended his assertion in an appearance on Radio Iowa, saying the “physical characteristics” of many in the country illegally was evidence that they’d been hauling drugs across the border.
“It’s not something that I’m making up. This is real,” King said. “We have people that are mules, that are drug mules, that are hauling drugs across the border, and you can tell by their physical characteristics what they’ve been doing for months, going through the desert with 75 pounds of drugs on their back, and if those who advocate for the Dream Act, if they choose to characterize this about valedictorians, I gave them a different image that we need to be thinking about because we just simply can’t be passing legislation looking only at one component of what would be millions of people.”
While they are opposed to the immigration legislation that passed the Senate, House Republican leaders have been keenly sensitive to the tone of the debate, worried that outlandish comments would worsen the party’s already fraught relationship with Hispanic voters. The leadership similarly denounced Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) in March when he used an ethnic slur to describe Mexican immigrants in an interview.
Yet lawmakers and aides say there is little more they can do to quiet King, a member of the Judiciary Committee. Boehner no longer has earmarks to use as a carrot or stick with members, and when the leadership kicked four maverick members off committees after the November elections, conservative activists rallied to their defense.
“From time to time, folks around here say and do things that we all disagree with, the majority of us disagree with. That represents the point of view of one individual,” Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.) said.
He brought up the example of former Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.), the New York mayoral candidate whose online sexcapades have given Democrats headaches. “His issues don’t represent the point of view of the Democratic Party on women’s issues,” Diaz-Balart said.
Speaking of King, he added: “He has opinions, and he’s going to express them. I don’t think anybody can stop him from doing that.”
Democrats scoffed at the Republican response, noting that just weeks ago, all but six House Republicans backed a King amendment to end the Obama administration’s deferred action policy allowing many immigrants brought to the U.S. illegally to escape deportation.
King did have at least one defender on Capitol Hill on Wednesday: Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), the former GOP presidential hopeful.
“What I agree with Steve King is, he completely understands the will of the American people,” she said in an interview. “The American people are demanding we complete border security. We failed to do that.”
“What he sees is that, by allowing a fake, backdoor amnesty to the, quote, children of illegal aliens, we’re looking at what is probably the largest subset of illegal aliens in the United States,” Bachmann said. “This is just a backdoor form for allowing amnesty to illegal aliens. That’s all this is. So I stand with him on that effort.”
— Jonathan Easley and Mike Lillis contributed.