History in the House: Congress weathers unprecedented week

Even in the volatile Trump era, this was an extraordinary and historic week in Washington. 

The House voted to condemn a sitting president for “racist” tweets. The Speaker’s words were stricken from the record only to be restored minutes later in a controversial vote. The lower chamber voted to hold two top Cabinet officials in contempt of Congress.

And Democrats and Republicans teamed up to kill the first impeachment effort against President Trump brought forth in the new Democratic majority.  

{mosads}“It certainly was a contentious week, and in many respects, an unbelievable week,” Rules Committee Chairman Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), who’s spent more than two decades in the House, told The Hill.

Partisanship on Capitol Hill has been getting more entrenched for years, but the tensions have escalated under Trump and seemed to come to a head this week in a perfect storm of racial acrimony, partisan finger-pointing and even concerns about violent attacks against members of Congress.

“We are beginning to see the radioactive fallout of this presidency on this institution. That’s really what you’re seeing,” Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), a former Senate staffer who’s served a decade in the House. “And what he’s not used to is, he’s no longer dealing with a compliant, see-and-hear-no-evil Congress. He’s actually dealing with a Congress that believes oversight’s real, and a constitutional requirement. And that has created a whole new environment, and I don’t think anyone should be surprised that we are now reacting to his radioactivity.”

Connolly pointed to the episode of Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.) vacating the chair in a fit of frustration Wednesday as a striking example of just how toxic the political environment has become under Trump.

“To ask an African American in the chair to have to be complicit in ruling ‘out of order’ speaking the truth about the racist remarks of the president is a bridge too far for, certainly, Emanuel Cleaver, and probably for most of my [Democratic] colleagues in the House,” Connolly said. 

“All of this is unprecedented. And we’re all trying to navigate our way through these very uncharted waters,” he said.

Trump unleashed a tidal wave on Sunday when he tweeted that four progressive freshman congresswomen of color who have criticized him — Reps. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) — should “go back” to their own countries. All four are American citizens; three were born in the U.S. 

The Democratic-led House responded with an extremely rare vote to condemn Trump’s remarks about the minority women, but not before the two parties brawled over whether Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Trump’s chief adversary on the Hill, could call Trump’s remarks “racist” on the floor under House rules. The parliamentarian ruled that she could not, but the decision was overturned in a vote by Democrats.

{mossecondads}In the same Wednesday vote series, the lower chamber voted to hold Attorney General William Barr and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross in criminal contempt of Congress for ignoring Democratic subpoenas. The House killed a resolution by progressive Rep. Al Green (D-Texas) to impeach Trump, but 95 Democrats went on record saying they wanted to move forward with impeachment.

Later that night at a campaign rally in North Carolina, Trump threw fuel on the fire by invoking each of the four progressive congresswomen by name. When Trump mentioned Omar, the crowd began to chant: “Send her back! Send her back!” — words the president distanced himself from a day later. 

Democrats accused Trump of creating a security risk for the Democratic women.

“I’ve never seen a week like this week,” said another veteran of the House, Rep. Tom Cole (Okla.), a former member of GOP leadership who now is the top Republican on the Rules Committee. Cole said he’s never seen a lawmaker abandon the chair of the House, never seen a Speaker’s words be ruled out of order and never seen a House majority vote to reinstate those words.

Cole blamed the rising temperatures on next year’s presidential election.

“It’s a supercharged and very heated year. Everybody knows a lot is at stake moving toward the next election,” Cole said. 

“This idea that there would be a quiet off year. … The simple fact that you’ve got 20 candidates running for the Democratic side for president suggests that this is going to be a very hot year. People are gearing up. It’s a big election, and that makes governing more difficult,” he said.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) on Thursday blasted Pelosi, suggesting she abused her power as Speaker in refusing to apologize for the remarks, and later staging a vote to restore them to the congressional record.  

“She made her own House vote to give her the right to speak again — to treat her differently than everybody else. So the rules do not apply equally to everybody in this body. And we have seen this time and time again,” he said.

Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), an icon of the civil rights movement who was beaten nearly to death in Alabama in 1965, suggested tempers are flaring because lawmakers are fatigued and ready for the long August recess. 

“It is out of the ordinary. It’s just the drama of it all,” he said. “People are ready to go home, ready for a break.”

For other lawmakers of color, the president’s “go back” comments were personally painful.  

“As a racial, religious and ethnic minority who happens to be an immigrant and is a proud American, I found his comments really hit close to home because they really shake at the core of what it means to be an American,” said Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-Ill.), who was born in India and became the first member of the Hindu faith to preside over the House in April.

He recalls being told to go back to his own country, “but that was maybe on the school yard or maybe in a fit of road rage. Never thought I’d hear those words coming from the president. … Now it’s considered normal, and that might be the worst outcome of what’s happened this week.”

Tags Al Green Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Ayanna Pressley Donald Trump Gerry Connolly Ilhan Omar Immigration Impeachment John Lewis Kevin McCarthy Nancy Pelosi Race Raja Krishnamoorthi Rashida Tlaib Tom Cole Wilbur Ross William Barr

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