Updated Apr 30, 2024 - Politics & Policy

Democrats fume at Mike Johnson over antisemitism vote

House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, wearing a gray suit, and House Speaker Mike Johnson, wearing a blue suit.

House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries and House Speaker Mike Johnson. Photo: J. Scott Applewhite/Pool/AFP via Getty Images.

House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) has left many Democrats frustrated over his plans for an antisemitism vote that is proving divisive on their side of the aisle.

Why it matters: Johnson has put antisemitism front and center this week amid pro-Palestinian protests at colleges around the country. But some Democrats argue he is wasting an opportunity.

State of play: The House is set to vote Wednesday on the Antisemitism Awareness Act, which would require the Department of Education to use the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance's definition of antisemitism in its enforcement of anti-discrimination laws.

  • The legislation, led by Rep. Mike Lawler (R-N.Y.), is co-sponsored by 33 Republicans and 14 Democrats — mostly moderates and staunch supporters of Israel.
  • But controversially for many Democrats, the IHRA definition includes "claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor" and "drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis."
  • "It could be divisive," one senior House Democrat told Axios of the upcoming vote.

The latest: House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.), in a letter to Johnson on Monday, wrote that "there is nothing scheduled on the floor this week that would accomplish the concrete, thoughtful strategies outlined by the Biden administration" to combat antisemitism.

  • Jeffries urged a vote on the Countering Antisemitism Act, a bipartisan bill with deeper support among Democrats to establish a national coordinator and an interagency task force to counter antisemitism.
  • "The effort to crush antisemitism and hatred in any form is not a Democratic or Republican issue. It's an American issue that must be addressed in a bipartisan manner with the fierce urgency of now," he wrote.
  • A Democratic leadership source told Axios there is frustration among Jeffries' leadership team about Johnson's decision to hold a vote on Lawler's bill.

What they're saying: "I don't like that the Republicans, and some members of our own party, just keep bringing these things up and weaponizing what is a truly serious issue," said Progressive Caucus Chair Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.).

  • Jayapal, a vocal Israel critic, added, "I don't see how it helps to bring up bills that are divisive on an issue like antisemitism … it feels to me like this is just being used to divide us."
  • Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), a Jewish progressive, told Axios: "A number of members have expressed to me their frustration that this is what's being presented instead of both bills."
  • "We should try to be together. It's stronger for America and Israel if we are. So if we took a little extra time to get something we can all find would work, that would probably be productive," said Rep. Scott Peters (D-Calif.).

Zoom in: Even some Democrats who say they will likely vote for Lawler's bill expressed frustration or disappointment at Johnson's decision. "I don't love it at all," said one.

  • "I don't think it's unfair to say it's a political decision," Rep. Kathy Manning (D-N.C.), who introduced the Countering Antisemitism Act, told Axios.
  • Manning said hers is a "much broader bill, and I think it would accomplish much more," adding that Johnson "wants to remain speaker. I want to address antisemitism."

The other side: Several Democrats who have co-sponsored Lawler's bill told Axios they are talking with their skeptical colleagues to persuade them to support the measure.

  • Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.) said he "can't say I've turned anybody around." But "you can't fight antisemitism if you won't define it, and it's not like somebody is putting together a rival definition."
  • A Johnson spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.
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