Clyburn battles for unity in Democrats’ response to King’s white supremacist statements

Jim Clyburn got the House to vote overwhelmingly on Tuesday afternoon to formally disapprove of Rep. Steve King’s remarks condoning white supremacy.

On Tuesday evening, Clyburn was making the case to colleagues that taking stronger action against King, such as censure, might be a step too far.

The highest ranking black member of Congress whose job as majority whip is to make sure his members vote in step on key legislation, Clyburn, D-South Carolina, said he would support censuring King, an Iowa Republican, if given the opportunity. Censure is the harshest form of punishment for a sitting member of Congress short of expulsion from office.

Yet this week, Clyburn found himself in a position where he had decide what might actually be the wisest course of action for his party, regardless of his personal beliefs, and he determined censure was not it.

So hours after the House’s 424-1 vote to condemn the King remarks, according to a senior Democratic leadership aide, Clyburn sat down with Reps. Bobby Rush, D-Illinois, and Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, two lawmakers who think the disapproval resolution did not go far enough and are forcefully pushing for a censure vote instead.

The resolution approved Tuesday expressed disapproval of King’s recent statement to the New York Times questioning why “white supremacist” had become a derogatory label. The resolution also listed a litany of other white supremacist actions in recent history that the House of Representatives ought to condemn.

King, who said his remarks to the Times were taken out of context, said on the House floor he would vote for the resolution since he, too, abhorred racism.

Rush, the only member of the House to vote against the measure, said he was “disappointed that the Democratic Party was not going as far as it could take” the matter.

“This resolution is really almost not worth the paper it’s written on,” he said. “Even non-repentant, racist Steve King says he’ll vote for it, so you know it’s not what’s needed.”

Ryan on Tuesday voted for Clyburn’s disapproval resolution, but he made it clear in a floor speech he felt the measure wasn’t a harsh enough condemnation and the House should move forward with a vote of censure. He finished his remarks to a smattering of applause.

The House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy said that it's "up to Steve King" when asked if the representative should resign over his recent comments on white supremacy. House Republican Conference chair Rep. Liz Cheney made a stronger statement.

Rush and Ryan signaled on Tuesday they intended to use procedural maneuvers to force a vote on the House floor in the near future on a resolution to censure King.

The senior House Democratic leadership aide told McClatchy “conservations were ongoing” regarding what Rush and Ryan would do, but said there was a growing expectation the two rank-and-file lawmakers would not force members to vote on censure on Wednesday.

“Leadership feels there are a number of reasons why censure is not the preferred avenue at this time,” the aide said.

Clyburn laid out some of these reasons to reporters on Tuesday afternoon.

While Clyburn said he would vote for a censure resolution should members succeed in getting it to the floor — “I’d whip for it,” he said, referring to the task of persuading lawmakers to support legislation — as a member of leadership he preferred to put forward a document that could unify the entire House against King’s statements, and statements like it.

“I decided a resolution of disapproval (would be) an appropriate thing that would allow all of our members, Democrats and Republicans, people in safe districts, people in swing districts, to all express themselves in a positive way,” Clyburn said.

Clyburn suggested while some members felt the disapproval resolution didn’t go far enough, others expressed concern that a censure measure would be too extreme.

“I try when I can not to make people uncomfortable. When I can I try to accommodate people’s feelings and positions. And we have a few people who were uncomfortable with censure but very comfortable with disapproval. So I went with that,” he explained.

He also acknowledged there was always a “possibility” that allowing a censure vote could make it easier for members of both parties to police members for their rhetoric. He also said “one reason I didn’t do censure (is because) I don’t believe in censuring speech.”

Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Georgia, shared Clyburn’s concerns.

“The censure for exercising a First Amendment right strikes the wrong cord with me,” Johnson said. “However, representatives of the people in Congress have a special obligation and special responsibility. So because of the history Rep. King has with such remarks makes it less difficult to support a censure motion for me. If a censure resolution is called up for a vote, I’d probably be in favor for it.”

The very reason why some members are pushing so strongly for censure is that King’s most recent comments were not an isolated incident. House Republican leaders for years would only lightly chide King for his history of racially insensitive rhetoric, particularly on immigration, but on Monday they took the dramatic step of taking away all of the congressman’s committee assignments.

The third-ranking House Republican, Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, even called this week for King’s resignation.

“(The) decision to remove me from committees is a political decision that ignores the truth,” King said.

Still, if Clyburn is getting pressure from some members inside the caucus, he’s not hearing similar cries from outside Congress.

Hilary Shelton, director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s Washington bureau, said the civil rights organization would be satisfied with a statement of disapproval or a censure.

“We appreciate that both of them (Clyburn and Rush) believe that he should be sanctioned for his behavior,” Shelton said. “Making a statement that what he is saying is not acceptable as a body is important.”

Emma Dumain works out of the McClatchy Washington bureau, where she reports on South Carolina politics for The State, The Herald, The Sun News, The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette. She was previously the Washington correspondent for the Charleston, South Carolina Post and Courier. Dumain also covered Congress for Roll Call and Congressional Quarterly.