The U.S. House following a vitriolic debate passed a bill along party lines Tuesday night to create a State Department office that would counter Islamophobia worldwide. Democrats said a conflict much closer to home showed the need to confront anti-Muslim bigotry.
The bill sponsored by Rep. Ilhan Omar, (D-Minn.), picked up momentum after Colorado Republican Rep. Lauren Boebert suggested Omar, who is Muslim, was a terrorist. Democrats, including Colorado’s Ed Perlmutter and Joe Neguse, criticized Boebert in declaring their support for the measure.
The vote, on likely the last day the House is in session this year, appears to be the only action the chamber will take for now related to the ongoing dispute between the two lawmakers. The legislation passed 219-212.
A group of progressives, led by Massachusetts’ Ayanna Pressley, introduced a measure last week to strip Boebert of her committee assignments. It has not been taken up by the House and House Democratic leaders have declined to say when they will act on it, pointing to Republican leaders as the ones responsible for their member’s comments.
The Omar bill would create a State Department office, led by a presidentially appointed special envoy, to monitor for anti-Muslim violence, harassment, forced labor, reeducation and other Islamophobic acts in foreign countries.
“We must confront Islamophobia or any form of racism” wherever it is found, said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, “even in these very halls.”
Omar, chief co-sponsor Rep. Jan Schakowsky of Illinois and 32 other Democrats introduced the bill in October. It advanced in recent weeks after a late November video showed Boebert telling supporters an anecdote — disputed by Omar — in which she joked that Omar was a terrorist.
Boebert later deleted the video and apologized “to anyone in the Muslim community I offended” but a direct conversation with Omar went south after Boebert refused a further apology.
Several Democrats said Tuesday the episode showed Islamophobia was still a problem that needed to be addressed.
“We have even heard disturbing rhetoric from some right here in this institution,” Rules Chairman Jim McGovern, (D-Mass.), said. “A member of this House has told a completely fabricated story again and again that implies a Muslim colleague is a terrorist… just because they are Muslim.”
McGovern said the incident was “a stain on this entire institution.”
At the Rules Committee hearing setting up debate terms for the measure, Perlmutter said the attention from Boebert’s remarks fueled a desire to pass the bill.
“A lot of this arose because of a bigoted joke that a Colorado colleague of mine made,” Perlmutter said. “That joke was Islamophobic from the get-go. Whether it’s in Africa or Southeast Asia or Europe or the halls of Congress, we’ve got to stop this.”
At one point the House paused debate on the measure when Democrats objected to Pennsylvania Republican Scott Perry’s comments that the bill was merely an effort to “placate an anti-Semitic member,” referring to Omar. Republicans and others have called some of Omar’s criticism of Israel and other comments anti-Semitic.
The House Foreign Affairs Committee approved the bill along party lines on Friday and another 25 Democrats signed on as cosponsors Monday. It would still need to be passed by the Senate and signed by the president to become law.
Some Republicans, including Rules Committee ranking member Tom Cole of Oklahoma and Foreign Affairs ranking member Michael McCaul, said they supported the concept but objected to how the measure would be implemented.
The bill lacked a definition for Islamophobia and duplicated clearer State Department policies targeted at countering religious persecution, they said.
“Without clear definitions, even First Amendment-protected speech could qualify for an investigation,” Rep. Guy Reschenthaler, (R-Penn.), said. “Under this measure, it will be up to unelected, career bureaucrats at the State Department to determine what constitutes this phobia.”
Others were less shy about opposing the bill’s aim.
“It’s a season of misplaced priorities,” Rep. Dan Crenshaw, (R-Texas), said on the House floor. “Labor shortages, open borders and foreign policy blunders. And my colleagues think that Islamophobia is what Americans care about.”
McCaul said the State Department opposed the measure because it complicated existing anti-discrimination efforts.
A spokeswoman for State said the department could not comment before the bill’s passage Tuesday.
The White House said the administration supports the measure and “looks forward to working with Congress to ensure the Secretary of State has the necessary flexibility and permissive authority to designate such an office and special envoy.”
The bill is modeled after a measure to create a State Department office to counter anti-Semitism that Congress passed with wide bipartisan majorities in 2019, House Foreign Affairs Chairman Gregory Meeks, (D-N.Y.), said.
—Laura Olson contributed to this report.