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Head Of Congressional Black Caucus Discusses Rep. Ilhan Omar's Controversial Comments


Today the House overwhelmingly approved a resolution condemning anti-Semitism and other forms of bigotry, including racism and anti-Muslim discrimination. Democrats introduced this very broad resolution in response to a very specific comment. Last week, freshman Democratic Congresswoman Ilhan Omar of Minnesota suggested that American pro-Israel activists were, quote, "pushing for allegiance to a foreign country."


Critics, including many Democrats, said she was trafficking in an anti-Semitic smear. The resolution in the House today did not mention Omar by name, but it specifically condemned the pernicious myth of dual loyalty and foreign allegiance. As the House was voting, I spoke with Congresswoman Karen Bass, Democrat of California. She's also chair of the Congressional Black Caucus.

Welcome to the program.

KAREN BASS: Thank you.

CORNISH: You are in the middle of voting right now. How did you vote on the measure?

BASS: Oh, I voted for - I will vote for the measure, and I just finished speaking on the floor in support of the measure.

CORNISH: You were one of many Democrats who expressed concern that Congressman Omar was being unfairly singled out. What did you mean?

BASS: Well, I think that there is a concern that she is facing numerous death threats. It's been incredible attacks on her. Many of us actually feel that she needs to have a security detail. But in the Congressional Black Caucus, people were always against anti-Semitism. That is never the question with anybody in the Congressional Black Caucus.

And in a time where we're trying to focus on many proactive pieces of legislation, we do not want to see our agenda diverted away from comments that people might make or accusations or threats. And so this was an opportunity to do a resolution that talked about white supremacy, that talked about anti-Semitism...

CORNISH: And let me jump in because it talks...

BASS: ...About Islamophobia.

CORNISH: ...About so many other things that some people, you know, could argue that it waters down the original concerns by lawmakers...

BASS: I don't think it...

CORNISH: ...that were reflected by her words.

BASS: No, if you look at the entire resolution, the majority of the resolution focuses on anti-Semitism. And I will tell you that the No. 1 co-sponsor of the resolution is Jamie Raskin. The other co-sponsor - who is Jewish - the other co-sponsor is Cedric Richmond, who's the former chair of the Congressional Black Caucus.

So the opportunity that the resolution presented was an opportunity for there to be unity in our caucus, and I believe that's what was achieved. And I think when the vote is said and done, you will see that it united, actually, not just the Democrats, but the Republicans as well.

CORNISH: This debate over Representative Omar's comments has exposed a split in the party about what kind of criticism is politically acceptable about the U.S. relationship with Israel. Is that a debate that the party needs to acknowledge and deal with?

BASS: Well, I think that it is a debate within the caucus. And I think that foreign policy is an important issue, and there are differences with many, many different areas of foreign policy. But I think the problem is is that the comment really didn't allow for the debate on the policy issue. The comment really reduced it to people needing to understand language that is inflammatory - language that is viewed as anti-Semitism.

And again, we took the opportunity to make this a learning experience, and I think it was a learning experience for Representative Omar. And I think it was a learning experience for many members in the caucus who maybe understood that that wasn't the proper thing to say, but didn't understand the full depth, impact and history of that kind of statement.

CORNISH: And I can understand this is also not the first time that Congressman Omar has been accused of anti-Semitism. She's already had to apologize once before about a different remark she made on Twitter. Have you spoken to her today?

BASS: I have spoken to her today. I've spoken to her many times - as a matter of fact, over the weekend, we were in Africa together. So I've spent a long time speaking with her. And I think that, again, this is an educational process not just for her but for many members of the caucus. And I certainly hope that this is the last time we go down this road.

CORNISH: At this point, does it feel like this debate has overshadowed other voting priorities?

BASS: No, I don't think it's overshadowed, but I think it's important that it ends today, and I think it will end with this resolution. And tomorrow, we will be back voting on an important piece of legislation, HR 1, which looks at corruption. It looks at voter expansion. It looks at money and politics. And it's the significant type of policy issues that we want to address in the Democratic caucus. And we will be back on point first thing tomorrow.

CORNISH: That's Democratic Congresswoman Karen Bass of California, chair of the Congressional Black Caucus. Thank you for speaking with us.

BASS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.