If you needed evidence that the rules of Washington are in unfamiliar and uncomfortable territory, you just needed to watch the C-SPAN coverage of the House on Tuesday.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called President Donald Trump’s words “racist,” citing tweets he sent telling four female House Democrats of color to “go back” to their countries of origin. (All four are American citizens.) House Republicans sought to have her words “taken down,” a procedural slap not used against a House Speaker since 1984. The presiding officer dropped the gavel and stormed from the chamber in deep frustration. Then lawmakers were forced to decide whether Pelosi’s comments could remain in the record or not.
Lawmakers’ guiding document? An 1801 text by Thomas Jefferson. House rules are guided by what is known as “the Jefferson Manual,” which states that “references to racial or other discrimination on the part of the President are not in order.” As with so much of Congress, the arcane rules governing such a byzantine system were written well before lawmakers could have imagined the technology—namely, Twitter—that made such a question possible.
And this all took place before the House decided whether or not to condemn the President for his tweets––which the majority of the Republican conference was not expected to support.
Washington has long tested norms, and life under Trump seems to have intensified this. But seldom has division been seen so openly and so uncomfortably as when lawmakers were asked whether to stand up against Trump’s bullying of four of their own.
On Sunday, Trump weighed in on the public dispute between four freshmen members of Congress and Pelosi, arguing that if they were dissatisfied with the United States, they could return to their home countries. “Why don’t they go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came,” he tweeted. “Then come back and show us how it is done. These places need your help badly, you can’t leave fast enough. I’m sure that Nancy Pelosi would be very happy to quickly work out free travel arrangements!”
Trump did not specify the members he was talking about, but Democrats immediately presumed it was the quartet of progressive women who have dubbed themselves “the Squad”: Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressly and Rashida Tlaib.
Pelosi, who deemed the remarks “xenophobic,” announced on Monday that Reps. Tom Malinowski and Jamie Raskin would draft a resolution condemning them. The resolution decries the comments as “racist” and claims they have “legitimized fear and hatred of new Americans and people of color.” But it also purposely quotes lines from former Presidents John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan about the strength immigrants bring to the country. The latter was clearly an effort to bring Republicans on board, even though they knew it would be futile.
“The question is, will Republicans vote for a resolution that embraces the idea of Ronald Reagan? Or are they going to stand behind words that they know, most of them know in their hearts, are wrong and un-American,” Malinowski said Tuesday before the vote. “If they don’t support it, it will be mystifying to me. They have to decide if they are still the party of Reagan.”
Republican leadership knew they were in a lose-lose situation. They had been grumbling that the resolution was a political stunt, and Republican Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy confirmed on Tuesday he would urge his members not to support it. “It’s all politics,” he said.
Pelosi, the smartest tactician in the House, recognized an opportunity to not only embarrass the President but also to smooth over some divisions in her own caucus. By standing with those four female members with whom she had been feuding bitterly just day before, she could unite her members against a common foe: Trump. And she could do it under the pretense of telling Republicans to join them.
When she took the floor to speak about the resolution, she minced no words. “Every single member of this institution, Democratic and Republican, should join us in condemning the President’s racist tweets,” she said. “To do anything less would be a shocking rejection of our values and a shameful abdication of our oath of office to protect the American people.”
Rep. Doug Collins, the top-ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee, objected to her remarks, arguing that they fell outside Jefferson’s Manual and Rules of the House of Representatives by calling the President’s comments racist. Pelosi said she had run her words by the parliamentarian, but that did not pass muster with Collins. Members huddled on the floor, trying to discern the next steps, as veteran aides buried themselves in their phones looking for explanations or precedent.
Frustrations boiling over on both sides and protocol seemingly evaporating, Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, the lawmaker presiding over the U.S. House, stormed from the dais amid procedural arguments. The seven-term Democrat from Missouri had seen enough. “We just want to fight,” he said with visible disgust. “I abandon the chair.”
It was not immediately clear after that who was presiding over the chamber. Rep. G.K. Butterfield assumed the role briefly before House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, part of Pelosi’s Leadership team, took the gavel and announced the ruling that Pelosi’s remarks were out of line.
“Characterizing an action as racist is not in order,” Hoyer said. A voice vote to strike the words followed and Hoyer ruled in Pelosi’s favor.
Collins then called for a recorded vote. Either you were with Pelosi or you were against the parliamentarian ruling against her.
Pelosi’s remarks stayed: 232 Democrats sided with her while 190 Republicans sided against.
Even as decorum broke down though, the House was still poised to pass a resolution condemning Trump’s tweets. But as the procedural fight indicated, the vote was entirely along partisan lines. Just four Republican lawmakers – and one newly declared independent, Rep. Justin Amash – voted in support of the resolution. The breakdown highlighted the depths of the President’s grip on the Republican Party — or at least lawmakers’ fear of his influence over the GOP base.