A GOP push to punish Rep. Maxine Waters for encouraging protests against police bias fizzled on Tuesday. But its collapse laid bare a massive problem facing congressional leaders in both parties as they struggle to rein in members’ inflammatory rhetoric.
House Republicans, who have wrestled with incendiary remarks among their own, rallied around a resolution to censure Waters (D-Calif.) for urging Minneapolis protestors to “get more confrontational” and “stay on the streets” if former police officer Derek Chauvin is acquitted of George Floyd’s murder later Tuesday. The GOP bid failed in a party-line 216-210 vote Tuesday after House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy brought it up, a big victory for Democratic leaders who successfully defended one of their own committee chairs from the threatened rebuke.
Three or four centrist Democrats privately considered backing the effort to reprimand Waters, arguing that her comments were out of line with the nation already on edge this week, according to multiple congressional sources. But Democratic leaders, who have uniformly defended Waters, worked to keep their caucus together and were intent on presenting a largely united front against the GOP attacks.
“I think it’s a totally phony effort to distract from what the Republicans know has been the rhetoric of so many of their members, which has aided and abetted and condoned violent activity,” said House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer. The Maryland Democrat fiercely defended Waters hours after the judge in the Chauvin trial stunned many in Washington, D.C., by criticizing Waters’ remarks from the bench.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi, too, firmly rejected calls for censure, telling a reporter that Waters “talked about confrontation in the manner of the civil rights movement.”
Even several Democrats who are personally uncomfortable with Waters’ rhetoric said they would refuse to reprimand her while letting Republicans such as Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.) go unpunished for his fire-breathing speech during a Jan. 6 rally hours before a pro-Donald Trump mob attacked the Capitol.
Rep. Susan Wild (D-Pa.), among several Democrats who considered voting to censure her colleague, said she was "deeply concerned about [Waters’] word choice" but ultimately did not think it compared to the conduct of some of her GOP colleagues in recent weeks.
For those Democrats wary of Waters’ remarks, censuring their own colleague while ignoring what’s been said by their GOP counterparts — several of whom are still accused of helping to incite the Capitol riot — would smack of hypocrisy. Then there’s freshman Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), who has a long history of promoting extremist rhetoric online and was booted off her House committees for endorsing violence against Pelosi.
"I had to weigh it long and hard because of the votes we’ve taken earlier this year," Wild said, referring to the House votes to strip Greene off her committees. "I don’t think it rises to that level. But it was not an easy vote."
For many members, the debate over whether to punish Waters, a veteran member of the Congressional Black Caucus, reopened a painful schism over how Congress can proceed to normal business — and relationships — after Jan. 6. The GOP’s censure push quickly turned into a moment of judgment for several other lawmakers who have courted controversy with their conduct since the fraught 2020 election concluded.
And it’s yet another reminder that a Capitol long strained by partisanship remains near a breaking point after the traumatic violence of the insurrection. The attempt to rebuke Waters gave Republicans an opportunity to unify after months spent grappling with their own members’ divisive conduct and waging ugly intraparty battles. During a closed-door party meeting Tuesday morning, McCarthy encouraged his members to back his resolution and argued that Waters has incited violence.
“Censure is appropriate for the actions she has taken,” McCarthy told POLITICO after the meeting. “And we will bring it to the floor and see if Democratic members stand behind the words she said or believe censure is appropriate.”
But Democrats — even those who have questioned Waters’ rhetoric behind closed doors — swiftly countered that several GOP lawmakers have more explicitly endorsed violence, including against fellow members of Congress. Democrats zeroed in on the handful of Republicans, as well as former President Donald Trump, tied to charges of inciting violence leading up to the riot.
House Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.), however, argued that Trump’s rhetoric was less inflammatory than Waters’ and pointed out that the Democrat’s remarks were condemned by the judge in the Chauvin case.
“In fact, President Trump used the words ‘peaceful’ when he talked about the statements that he made,” Scalise said at a weekly press conference. “I haven’t heard Maxine say anything about peacefully protesting.”
The debate got more complicated by some lawmakers’ concerns that punishing Waters — or any member, for that matter — could lead to the weaponization of similar resolutions down the line. Such votes are relatively uncommon in the House, and both parties are typically reluctant to punish their own members on the floor.
In recent years, the House has voted on measures to rebuke Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) and former Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), for instance, but only after intense pressure from both sides. Republicans had planned to use Tuesday’s censure vote to tie vulnerable Democrats to Waters, long a liberal bogeywoman for the GOP.
Republicans are also expected to paint Democrats as anti-police in next year’s midterms — and Waters’ remarks may give them more fodder. Top Democrats, however, refused to give any oxygen to the GOP attacks.
Pelosi said Waters doesn’t need to apologize and was merely encouraging civil rights-style forms of protests. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said Waters “wants peace.” And House Democratic Caucus Chair Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) said McCarthy should worry about his own problems.
"Lauren Boebert is a mess. Matt Gaetz is a mess. MTG is a mess,” Jeffries said, ticking off GOP lawmakers who are facing their own political headaches. "Clean up your mess, Kevin. Sit this one out. You’ve got no credibility here."