WASHINGTON — Before the House voted Wednesday to censure Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz., and throw him off his committees, Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy delivered a veiled threat that Democrats' seats might not be safe if his party takes control next year.
The clash is the latest escalation in political warfare as far-right lawmakers push the limits of acceptable discourse and Democrats insist that their behavior can't go unpunished.
In 2019, Republicans acted on their own to kick Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, off his committees for speaking positively about white supremacy. But since then, they have declined to act against the violent or racist rhetoric of other members who have aligned themselves with former President Donald Trump. Democrats took matters into their own hands by booting Gosar and Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., from their committees.
Gosar was stripped of his committee assignments after he posted an anime video depicting himself killing Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., and brandishing swords at President Joe Biden.
Now Republicans are citing remarks by Democrats that are dissimilar but have drummed up outrage among their voters as reasons for future retaliation if they seize control of the House next fall.
McCarthy referred to comments by Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., saying U.S. support for Israel was "all about the Benjamins," a remark that she apologized for after she came under bipartisan criticism that she was pushing antisemitic tropes. He also referred to a tweet in which Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., said, "Lock up Kyle Rittenhouse and throw away the key." And he mentioned reports that Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., was targeted by a suspected Chinese spy, which Swalwell and intelligence officials have said didn't compromise any sensitive information.
McCarthy argued that the precedent set by Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. — allowing members of the minority to be removed from committees by votes of the majority — could subject Democrats to similar punishments in a Republican-led House. All hold highly sought committee assignments: Swalwell on Intelligence, Omar on Foreign Affairs and Jeffries on Judiciary.
"What they have started cannot be easily undone. Their actions today, and the past, have forever changed the way the House operates," McCarthy said on the House floor. "And furthermore, it means under the Pelosi precedent, all the members that I have mentioned earlier will need the approval of a majority to keep those positions in the future.
"This body has suffered greatly. And the new standard will continue to be applied in the future," he said, without defending or condemning Gosar.
The resolution to censure Gosar passed 223-207, with just two Republicans voting with Democrats: Liz Cheney of Wyoming and Adam Kinzinger of Illinois.
Gosar, who didn't apologize, said he took the video down because it had been misunderstood.
McCarthy declined Thursday to elaborate on which Democrats could get the ax from committees if he were to become speaker.
"This isn't about threats. But it's about holding people accountable," he told reporters.
Democrats say they're happy to be held to their own standard and to strip members of their party of committee assignments if they depict violence against colleagues.
"Let me be clear: If a Democrat did the same thing, I would introduce the same resolution," said Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., the author of the resolution.
Pelosi brushed off questions about the potential for retaliation against Democrats over committee seats, telling reporters Thursday that she won't base decisions on what Republicans could do in the "unlikely case that they might win the Congress."
"We would not walk away from our responsibilities for fear of something they may do in the future," she said.
Many Republicans said that they weren't defending Gosar or his video but that they opposed the punishment.
"Going down the road of pulling each other off of committees — where's this going to end? When Republicans are back in the majority, where is this going to end?" said Rep. Chip Roy, R-Texas, who said he has objected to remarks that Ocasio-Cortez has made about his ex-boss, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas.
Doug Heye, a former House Republican leadership aide, said he has "no doubt" that a future GOP majority would seek to throw Democrats off committees over extreme language.
"It's a statement of the obvious," he said. "On Capitol Hill, precedents matter."
Heye said that he supported censuring Gosar but that Democrats should have opted for a "clean" censure that didn't target his committee assignments. Although Democrats say it was about punishing a portrayal of violence against a colleague — and not merely disagreeable rhetoric — Heye said a future Republican majority could interpret and apply the standard differently.
"That's a question that will come from within the party," he said. "Unfortunately, in Washington, the loudest voices are able to be emboldened."
McCarthy said that under a hypothetical Republican majority, Gosar and Greene would be seated on House committees.
"They'll have committees," he told reporters. "They may have other committee assignments. They may have better committee assignments."