By Gregg Re
Published July 16, 2019
Escalating tensions on Capitol Hill erupted into a floor fight in the House of Representatives on Tuesday afternoon, as Speaker Nancy Pelosi spoke in favor of a resolution condemning "racist" comments by President Trump -- and Pelosi's words were eventually ruled out of order, as House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, a Democrat, announced the decision from the House parliamentarian.
"The words used by the gentlewoman from California contained an accusation of racist behavior on the part of the President," Hoyer said, in a decision that technically banned Pelosi from speaking on the House floor for a brief period of time. "The words should not be used in debate."
The Democrat-controlled House then voted along party lines not to strike Pelosi's words from the record, and voted separately to restore her speaking privileges. One Democrat in Congress had told Fox News, "We’re going to defend our Speaker."
The dramatic episode began when Pelosi's prepared remarks condemning Trump turned personal, and Georgia Republican Rep. Doug Collins rose to challenge her and demand that her words be "taken down." The extraordinary rebuke was the first of its kind involving a member of Congress and a speaker of the House in decades.
The scene then became even more bizarre when the chair, Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, D-Mo., told representatives after a lengthy huddle that he was trying to make a fair ruling as to whether Pelosi had broken House rules governing decorum, but people weren’t cooperating. Cleaver told Fox News he felt Pelosi was being singled out.
Cleaver simply declared, "I abandon the chair," and left -- a moment with no apparent precedent in modern congressional history.
North Carolina Rep. G.K. Butterfield, also a Democrat, assumed the chair, before Hoyer took the reins.
In her prepared remarks, Pelosi spoke in frank and unsparing terms about Trump's comments on Twitter over the weekend.
"There is no place anywhere for the president's words, which are not only divisive, but dangerous -- and have legitimized and increased fear and hatred of new Americans and people of color," Pelosi, D-Calif., said. "It's so sad because you would think that there would be a given that we would universally, in this body, just say, 'Of course. Of course.'"
Pelosi continued, her voice rising: "There's no excuse for any response to those words but a swift and strong unified condemnation. Every single member of this institution, Democratic and Republican, should join us in condemning the president's racist tweets. 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. I urge a unanimous vote, and yield back the balance of my time."
Collins immediately stood and asked if Pelosi wanted to "rephrase that comment."
"I have cleared my remarks with the parliamentarian before I read them," Pelosi claimed, before walking away to applause.
"Can I ask the words be taken down? I make a point of order that the gentlewoman's words are unparliamentary and be taken down," Collins said.
Fox News is told Collins used House Rule XVII, Clause 1(B). That rule requires that remarks on the floor “be confined to the question under debate, avoiding personality."
"The chair will remind all members, please, please, do not make personality-based comments," Cleaver said.
Collins then repeated his request to strike Pelosi's comments. For more than 30 minutes after Collins' objection, House members were huddled with the parliamentarian, Thomas J. Wickham Jr., to determine next steps.
As the consultation dragged on, Pelosi then appeared to leave the House floor, which itself constituted a violation of House Rules when someone’s words were taken down. Members are supposed to be seated on the floor when a member’s words are stricken.
Cleaver then abdicated. Hoyer eventually assumed the chair upon Pelosi's request so that a Democrat leader, and not a rank-and-file member, could take control.
Hoyer eventually announced the ruling that, based on the precedent "of May 15, 1984," Pelosi’s language did not meet the standard.
The precedent came after Republican Newt Gingrich, then a Georgia congressman, sparred with then-House Speaker Tip O’Neill, a Massachusetts Democrat. O'Neill remarked: "My personal opinion is this: You deliberately stood in that well before an empty House and challenged these people, and you challenged their Americanism, and it is the lowest thing I have ever seen in my thirty-two years in Congress."
The parliamentarian determined at the time that the speaker’s use of the word "lowest" amounted to inappropriate language, and O'Neill's words were taken down.
Collins, in a statement late Tuesday, condemned Democrats for effectively reversing the ruling.
"Democrats admitted her words violated the rules of decorum, the very rules that ensure democracy’s every voice can be heard as we carry out the people’s business," Collins said. "Still, every Democrat lawmaker voted against striking her words from the record. It bears repeating the House prizes decorum because it is a symptom of and a catalyst for a healthy, confident democracy. I hope we recover that confidence soon and more forward with respect for the American people who sent elected officials, including the president, to represent them in Washington.”
But Democrats privately told Fox News that rules of the House technically have been broken all the time, and that Republicans just wanted to distract from Trump's remarks.
Among other volumes, the House has used Thomas Jefferson’s "Manual of Parliamentary Practice" as a touchstone for House operations even today. Jefferson’s manual stated that House members cannot use language on the floor "which is personally offensive to the President." The manual also said members cannot accuse the president of "having made a bigoted or racist statement."
The House additionally has relied on Cannon’s Book of Precedents, authored by the late Missouri Rep. Clarence Cannon, a Democrat. Cannon’s book says that "personal criticism, innuendo, ridicule and terms of opprobrium" are out of the order in the House.
Fox News has obtained a copy of the draft resolution being debated, which mentioned Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton and James Madison. It also quoted Benjamin Franklin, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, President John Kennedy and President Ronald Reagan.
The resolution, entitled "H. Res. 489 — Condemning President Trump’s racist comments directed at Members of Congress," asserted that "President Donald Trump’s racist comments have legitimized fear and hatred of new Americans and people of color."
The scrap on the House floor over Pelosi's comments threatened to delay the vote until late in the evening, but the House commenced a vote soon after the votes overruling the parliamentarian.
The resolution passed by a vote of 240-187 All Democrats voted yea, with Republicans joining them: Reps. Brian Fitzpatrick, Will Hurd, Fred Upton and Susan Brooks.
Michigan Rep. Justin Amash, who recently left the Republican Party after calling for Trump's impeachment, also voted yes. The rest of the Republicans voted no.
The resolution asserted that "President Donald Trump’s racist comments have legitimized fear and hatred of new Americans and people of color." It mentioned Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton and James Madison. It also quoted Benjamin Franklin, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, President John Kennedy and President Ronald Reagan.
House Republican leaders, meanwhile, said the outrage over Trump's comments was "all about politics." A series of news organizations, meanwhile, have flatly referred to Trump's comments as "racist," without acknowledging the dispute over the matter.
A White House meeting with GOP congressional leaders that had been scheduled for Tuesday afternoon was postponed indefinitely, Fox News has learned. Democrats were set to hold a press conference later in the day.
"They talked more about impeachment than anything else," McCarthy, R-Calif., said earlier in the day, referring to Monday's fiery news conference with Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, and Ayanna Pressley. "We should get back to the business of America."
The brouhaha began on Sunday after Trump tweeted that unnamed "Democrat Congresswomen" should go back and fix the "corrupt" and "crime infested places" from which they came and then "come back and show us how it's done."
Key Republicans have stood by the president. South Carolina GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham, for example, told "Fox & Friends" that the progressive representatives were a "bunch of communists," and charged that Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar was plainly anti-Semitic. Just over a dozen GOP lawmakers have condemned Trump's comments.
Omar previously has been criticized by prominent members of both parties for making remarks widely deemed anti-Semitic. This past March, the Democrat-led House overwhelmingly passed a bipartisan resolution that indirectly condemned Omar's repeated "anti-Semitic" and "pernicious" comments, including some in which she suggested Jewish politicians in the U.S. were bought and paid for.
Omar has also referred to 9/11 as a day when "some people did something," rankling Trump and top Republicans, who called the remarks clearly insensitive.
“We all know that [AOC] and this crowd are a bunch of communists, they hate Israel, they hate our own country, they’re calling the guards along our border—the Border Patrol agents—concentration camp guards,” Graham said.
Some Republicans have condemned the president's remarks, including Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, who tweeted: "There is no excuse for the president’s spiteful comments –they were absolutely unacceptable and this needs to stop."
But, McCarthy, while clarifying that he believes the Democrats in question "love this country," said he was not on board with the resolution and will encourage other Republicans to vote against it.
Fox News' Chad Pergram and Ronn Blitzer contributed to this report.