Democrat responds to being told 'go back to Puerto Rico' on House floor

Rep. Tony Cárdenas (D-Calif.) said a Republican telling him to "go back to Puerto Rico" sounded like the equivalent of "go back to where you came from."

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During a House vote on reopening the government Thursday, an argument broke out between Republicans and Democrats over a procedural question.

During the chaos, Rep. Jason SmithJason Thomas SmithDon’t extend the electric vehicle tax credit; repeal it The Hill's Morning Report — Nasty shutdown fight gets nastier Democrat responds to being told 'go back to Puerto Rico' on House floor MORE (R-Mo.) yelled, "Go back to Puerto Rico!"

"When people blurt things out like that, it certainly sounds like the old saying, 'go back to where you came from,' " Cárdenas told The Hill later.

"Since I was a little boy I've heard that blurted at me many times, but it's sad that anything even remotely close to that would be said to me on the floor of the House," he added.

Cárdenas said he immediately asked his Republican colleagues who'd made the remark, but no one came forward.

Smith later acknowledged he'd made the remark, but not in reference to any one member. He said he directed it to any Democrat who had taken part in a weekend delegation to the U.S. territory.

"Was speaking to all the Democrats who were down vacationing in Puerto Rico last weekend during the shutdown, not any individual member," Smith told The Hill after the incident. 

"It just so happens I was in the well on the floor of the people's House when he screamed that out very loud," said Cárdenas when asked if he believed Smith's response.

"I responded by asking who said it and there was about 50 mostly male Republicans staring at me, and no one would admit that they said it. I asked several times but no one owned up to the fact that they said it," he added.

Smith later called Cárdenas and apologized. Smith "took responsibility for the comment and sincerely apologized. I accepted his apology," according to Cárdenas.

Cárdenas, a descendant of Mexican immigrants from California, said he initially talked to Rep. Markwayne MullinMarkwayne MullinDemocrat responds to being told 'go back to Puerto Rico' on House floor Liz Cheney wins House GOP leadership post Overnight Health Care: Opioids package nears finish line | Measure to help drug companies draws ire | Maryland ObamaCare rates to drop MORE (R-Okla.) after the incident.

"I don't remember exactly what he said. Markwayne Mullin tried to clarify what was said, and when I asked if he had said it, he didn't say he did — and I'm not accusing him of saying it — but he kept talking and said, they didn't mean for you to go back to Puerto Rico, what they meant is go back to Puerto Rico this last weekend."

Cárdenas, the head of Bold PAC, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus (CHC) campaign arm, led a delegation of 36 members to Puerto Rico over the weekend. The delegation met with Puerto Rican officials, business and labor representatives, and the island's Fiscal Control Board.

Cárdenas said he had trouble believing Mullin's explanation, and the two exchanged pointed words on the floor.

"Mullins said, 'You're just looking for an excuse to be offended,' " according to Cárdenas. "I said, 'Don't tell me what I'm thinking.'" 

Cárdenas added he finds the timing of Smith's explanation dubious.

"I would have preferred that Jason Smith would have owned up to it at the moment so I could have asked him what he meant and he could have clarified to a fellow member. Instead it sounds like after having time to think about it he's come up with this explanation," said Cárdenas.

Cárdenas added he won't seek any further action on the matter.

"I asked with him in the room and he chose not to speak up at that moment. Apparently, some time later he chose to expose himself, and he knows who I am. If he wants to renew a conversation about that, I'm fine with it," he said.

The remarks, Cárdenas said, show a lack of understanding about the minority experience in the United States, regardless of how they were meant.

"I'm offended somebody that screamed that out across the floor of the House to somebody like me, that unfortunately when I was a child I used to hear it that on the playground from other kids," said Cárdenas.

"But they were children. To hear an adult member of Congress scream that out is very disturbing and disappointing. We have a long way to go in this country when it comes to people seeing others as equals," he added.

Scott Wong, Mike Lillis and Juliegrace Brufke contributed to this report. Updated at 6:43 p.m.