Washington, DC – When Republican House leader Kevin McCarthy mentioned the name of Muslim-American Congresswoman Ilhan Omar at a Republican Jewish Coalition conference at the weekend, boos erupted from the crowd.
“That’s a rightful boo,” the congressman responded, before promising to remove Omar from the House Foreign Affairs Committee because of her criticism of Israel.
The top Republican’s pledge has sparked an outcry from progressive and Muslim-American advocates who say the attack on Omar was unjustified. Some also warned it may be the tip of the iceberg in a campaign that House Republicans are preparing against Democrats when they take control of the congressional chamber in January.
“Republican and Democratic leaders in Congress should come together to reject this cynical political attack on Rep. Omar,” Robert McCaw, director of government affairs at the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR), said in a statement.
“Members of Congress should not be silenced for daring to consistently speak out against human rights violations, whether committed by our nation’s adversaries, allies or even our own government,” McCaw said on Monday.
After Republicans won a slim House majority in this month’s midterm elections, McCarthy will likely become House speaker in the new Congress, which will convene on January 3, 2023.
But even before stepping into the majority, top House Republicans said they will investigate the business dealings by President Joe Biden’s son, Hunter Biden — an issue that Democrats say is unfounded.
McCarthy also told Fox News on Sunday that he would prevent Democrats Adam Schiff and Eric Swalwell from joining the intelligence committee.
But McCarthy’s attack on Omar, which follows years of incessant Republican criticism of the congresswoman, was especially pronounced.
“Last year, I promised that when I became Speaker, I would remove Rep. Ilhan Omar from the House Foreign Affairs Committee based on her repeated anti-semitic and anti-American remarks,” he wrote on Twitter on Saturday. “I’m keeping that promise.”
McCaw at CAIR described McCarthy’s pledge as “beyond hypocritical”, noting he had said he would reinstate the committee assignments of Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene. Greene was kicked off congressional panels last year over anti-Semitic and Islamophobic comments.
In a blistering statement on Monday, Omar rebuked McCarthy and accused Republicans of using “fear, xenophobia, Islamophobia and racism” to target her since she was elected in 2018.
“McCarthy’s effort to repeatedly single me out for scorn and hatred — including threatening to strip me from my committee — does nothing to address the issues our constituents deal with. It does nothing to address inflation, healthcare, or solve the climate crisis,” she said.
Omar is one of three Muslims serving in Congress and one of the few vocal supporters of Palestinian rights on Capitol Hill.
As a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, which helps push forward legislation and undertakes oversight of members of the US executive branch, she also has been a rare voice calling for diplomacy and against hawkish policies.
Omar has previously been accused of using anti-Semitic tropes after she suggested that political donations from pro-Israel lobby groups, including the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), drive support for Israel in Washington.
She later apologised for that comment, but Palestinian rights advocates say accusations of anti-Semitism against Omar and others over their criticism of Israel aim to stifle the debate around Israeli government policies.
Progressives defend Omar
This week, several prominent progressives rushed to Omar’s defence after McCarthy’s remarks.
Congresswoman Cori Bush urged McCarthy to “do better” and expressed support for Omar. “Islamophobia, racism, religious discrimination & hate have no place in the People’s House or our society,” she wrote on Twitter.
Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal, chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, described Omar as a “dedicated” legislator and accused Republicans of weaponising “xenophobia and racism to undermine her voice”.
Many also rejected attempts to draw an equivalence between Omar and Greene or Paul Gosar, another far-right Republican who was formally rebuked last year for sharing an animated video that depicted him killing Democratic Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
“There’s been such a coordinated effort to convince you that progressive Black & brown women in office – who serve & lead from lived experiences – are the Democratic equivalent of white supremacist right-wingers who persecute, marginalize & incite violence on the rest of us. Stop it,” Congresswoman-elect Summer Lee wrote on Twitter on Monday.
When Reps Gosar & Taylor Greene made/amplified threats to colleagues’ lives, they were rightfully stripped of committee assignments. Now @Ilhan is being threatened with committee removal despite no such misconduct—just because Mr. McCarthy says so? This targeting is unacceptable. https://t.co/Mcl8BEqwVO
— Rep. Betty McCollum (@BettyMcCollum04) November 22, 2022
McCarthy, who as minority leader rejected the Democratic push against Greene and Gosar, had promised payback last year if Republicans were to regain control of the House.
“You’ll regret this. And you may regret this a lot sooner than you think,” he said after Democrats removed Greene from her committee assignments.
Beyond the Omar issue, many critics have slammed Republicans’ stated priorities for the next Congress, particularly investigating the Biden administration.
But Republicans say they will be fulfilling one of the duties of Congress by ensuring oversight over the government.
Republicans also say their Democratic rivals launched various investigations into former President Donald Trump when he was in office — including over reports of collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign, which they dismiss as a “hoax”.
McCarthy said on Sunday that he would push to remove Schiff off the intelligence committee, which the Democrat currently chairs, over lying to the American public, without providing details.
Schiff shot back, calling McCarthy a “very weak leader” catering to “the lowest common denominator” in his caucus. “I suspect he will do whatever Marjorie Taylor Greene wants him to do,” Schiff told ABC News.