It was inevitable, given the state of the Republican Party in 2021, that House Democrats would find themselves in this position again.
For the third time this year, they’re weighing whether to hold a Republican lawmaker accountable for her outrageously offensive statements after GOP leaders refused to do it themselves.
This time, the Republican in question is Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-CO), who has openly made the bigoted joke that Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN), who is Muslim, is a terrorist who would carry a bomb in her backpack to the Capitol.
But this time, Democrats are weighing how to respond knowing full well that very response could serve as exhibit A in the GOP case to retaliate should they, as is expected, take control of the House in 2023.
Some of the three-dozen Democrats publicly supportive of censuring Boebert and removing her from committees say that shouldn’t matter.
“Democratic society,” said Rep. Mondaire Jones (D-N.Y.), “should not allow itself to become paralyzed by fear of what terrible people will do if they were to regain power.”
But the dynamics of taking such a step have shifted since Democrats took the rare step of doling out consequences to Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) and Paul Gosar (R-AZ) for their own insulting moves. The party voted to remove both of them from their committees and to censure Gosar.
In response, House Republicans—from the far-right fringe to the party’s leader, Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA)—have suggested that if they control the chamber in 2023, they will move to censure or otherwise punish Democrats who they think crossed the line in the past.
Omar herself has been a target of Republican threats for censure and committee removals for making statements with anti-semitic undertones. So have Reps. Maxine Waters (D-CA) and Eric Swalwell (D-CA), respectively accused of encouraging violence at racial justice demonstrations and having ties with a Chinese spy. In Swalwell’s case, Republicans have run so far with those claims that they have veered well past sexual innuendo.
Republicans have also moved past hinting at retaliation. During McCarthy’s eight-and-a-half hour talkathon before the Build Back Better vote, he explicitly said there’d be consequences for Democrats coming after Gosar. But if Democrats actually punished Boebert, it’d become a near-certainty that payback would be coming.
Progressive Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI), who is also Muslim and among the likely GOP targets for retribution, is also among the members unworried about that prospect. “I’d rather be removed from a committee than stay quiet,” she said.
What is clear is that House GOP leaders are not going to take action on Boebert themselves.
On Friday, McCarthy once again defended Boebert, saying she personally apologized to Omar. (Omar says she did not get a direct apology, and Boebert’s own account is that their conversation got testy once Omar asked for an actual apology.)
As he hopes to become Speaker of the House in 2023, however, McCarthy’s fear of alienating any part of his fractious conference has many convinced that he will not rein in any of his members—no matter the circumstances.
Many Democrats, when asked, put the onus entirely on Republicans for dealing with their fringe faction, and they bristle at media coverage that frames these renegade members as a Democratic problem, instead of a McCarthy problem.
But the fact is Democrats have demonstrated a willingness to hold Republicans accountable. Now, they are just grappling with how far that willingness extends.
Within the Democratic caucus, lawmakers are privately wondering what the standard should be for considering the nuclear option. They acknowledge the absurdity of the situation—deciding if joking about calling a colleague a dangerous terrorist merits the same consequences as posting a video of yourself murdering another colleague—but they are grappling with it all the same.
Many also worry that once they continue down this road, they’ll be formally condemning a different Republican provocateur on a semi-monthly basis, chewing up their precious time in charge. And plenty, including Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), have expressed concern about making these Republicans martyrs.
A Democratic lawmaker, speaking anonymously to freely discuss the dynamics, said their own personal standard for censure or committee removal is “fomenting political violence,” and did not feel the Boebert comments, while despicable, clearly met that standard.
The lawmaker suggested Democrats might be able to use the House GOP’s unwillingness to rein in their most extreme members as part of their broader case to keep the House.
“It needs to become a campaign issue in the midterms,” they said. “Just to point across the aisle and say, ‘Americans, do you feel like this conference is ready to govern?’”
Jones, for one, said Democrats had to move swiftly to show they take Boebert’s comments seriously—or else they risk losing credibility with the public.
“I don't see how Democrats can expect to retain majorities in Congress without being seen as working to create a world in which everyone regardless of their religion is allowed to live in dignity and in safety,” Jones said.
And while Democrats fret over how the to-punish-or-not-to-punish dynamic could impact them come 2022, Republicans are already plotting how they’ll dish out retributions, should they take back power.
For now, however, they are not revealing many specifics. A leader of the House conservative faction, Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH), demurred when asked which Democrats they might want to target.
“It'll be a conference decision,” Jordan told The Daily Beast. “The bottom line is, [Democrats] crossed this bridge and once they've crossed it, if it's good for one team, it's good for the other.”
Other Republicans are not ready to go there. Rep. Peter Meijer (R-MI), who enraged the far right with his vote to impeach Donald Trump after Jan. 6, said he likely wouldn’t support retaliatory censures or committee removals.
But Meijer isn’t going to judge his GOP colleagues who would, if given the chance. “Pelosi cracked that door open and she set a dangerous precedent that I think is undermining the institution,” he said.
Democrats seemingly agree there’s a precedent—but they argue it’s a fair bar to uphold a standard of decency among members. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) told The Daily Beast on Thursday she was “saddened” by Democratic leadership’s delay in calling for action. “This should not take a long time,” she said.
“We have to have even enforcement against these things, because having that consistency is what actually draws the line. When we enforce and make these actions on some of these offenses, but not others, it actually encourages an increased frequency of them trying to test this boundary,” said Ocasio-Cortez.
“Because they think that, you know, if one of every four times you can get away with it, then they’re going to roll the dice,” she added.
Gosar shared the cartoon video showing himself murdering Ocasio-Cortez on Nov. 8—and was swiftly censured and removed from committees on Nov. 17. The political calculations among Democratic leadership are visibly slowing momentum for similar action against Boebert, whose comments began widely surfacing in a video posted Nov. 25.
The House adjourned on Thursday with no clear Democratic plan for Boebert—and lawmakers won’t return until Tuesday.
As for the threat of retaliation, Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA), chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, insists Republicans will push cavalier censure votes and committee removals regardless of what happens now—so Democrats might as well follow their guts.
“They’re going to do that no matter what. They probably would have done it regardless of what we have done. And so, that is who they are today, so I think we have to do what’s right,” she said.
Most Democrats are resigned to the likelihood that Boebert will hardly be the last Republican to push the bounds of acceptable conduct so far as to warrant a response. As they close in on enacting President Joe Biden’s agenda, some worry that too much of a focus on these fringe lawmakers will distract from their policy wins and waste precious time.
“The problem is, we're going to have more of this,” said Rep. Madeleine Dean (D-PA). “I've suggested maybe we tuck three together, hold them accountable three at a time, so they don't use up our resources and our time.”
“It's stealing from the stuff that my constituents care about,” Dean continued. “We have to reject their base behavior, but we have to focus on what we’re doing.”
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