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Kevin McCarthy’s historic rebuff is (another) sign of American political chaos

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U.S. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy walks among members of the House in between roll call votes for Speaker of the House of the 118th Congress on Jan. 3.Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Two Januarys ago, the United States Capitol was convulsed in a bitter dispute over who should be the most powerful figure in Washington. This week, an acrid dispute over who should be the second-most powerful figure in Washington produced yet another scene of upheaval and insurrection – peaceful by contrast, but disruptive and unsettling nonetheless.

Being contested in each January struggle was far more than the identity of the next president or of the next speaker of the House of Representatives.

Instead the stakes in both conflicts were far greater: whether the course of American politics follows well-trod paths, whether the political class of the country is able to govern, and whether the internal conflicts and contradictions of one of the major political parties contaminates the entire system.

In the three-ballot impasse over who should become House speaker, the divisions that have poisoned American politics were in full view, visible not only by members of Congress and by the country beyond, but also worldwide, where governmental stability in the United States has been one of the vital touchstones and enduring assumptions of global politics.

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Amid those tensions, and with the children of incoming lawmakers observing the chaos as they witnessed their parents’ first hours in what is known as the “people’s house,” Representative Kevin McCarthy of California struggled to do what party leaders have done with little opposition for a century: ascend to the speaker’s rostrum with ease, and without compromising concessions to party rebels. Instead, Mr. McCarthy’s decade-long quest for the speaker’s gavel disintegrated into a round-robin of concessions to unsatisfied party rebels, a week-long campaign that took the form of the pitiful in full pursuit of the votes of the pitiless.

And as the House moved into multiple ballots for speaker for the first time in exactly 100 years, the pillars of predictability tumbled in a wreckage that rendered the House floor the scene of a political tornado, with rubble strewn about and the foundations of the institution shaken. The principal expectation of life in the House – that presumptive speakers display strength, not weakness – fell by the wayside. What customarily is a ritual became a platform for rebellion.

In the passing of hour after hour, the stalemate seemed to deepen, the path to resolution blocked because the procedure for selecting the speaker does not provide for a winnowing of the field of candidates. The result: the persistent presence of an alternative to Mr. McCarthy as a repository of protest. At the same time, those who put Mr. McCarthy’s name into nomination – Representative Steve Scalise of Louisiana and Representative Jim Jordan of Ohio, himself an unwitting magnet for votes from the rebels, at least for now – seemed to have been setting themselves up, if not exactly auditioning, for the speakership if Mr. McCarthy stumbled.

Finally, the House – exhausted, frustrated, stymied – adjourned for the evening in the hope that the unresolved could be resolved, the irreconcilable could be reconciled, though the ways and means of doing so seemed to be beyond the ken of anybody, inside or outside the chamber. In short, none of the principals in the standoff seemed ready, willing, or able, to stand down or stand aside.

Lost in the turbulence on Capitol Hill – lost in the bathos while Mr. McCarthy retained an uncomfortable smile, forced, as the old crooner Nat King Cole might have sung, to smile though his heart was aching – was a culmination of a fundamental transformation of the character of the Congress that had been under way for years.

For generations, the House has operated with steadiness and discipline, its procedures designed to move the body forward without spectacle. At the same time, the Senate was a body without discipline, where debate could be carried on without limit and where the individual wishes of a single lawmaker or a small group could paralyze the chamber for hours stretching into days and weeks.

That is changing.

On Tuesday, the House – where 11 times since 1997, lawmakers have voted for candidates other than the presumptive speaker – seemed unable to choose a leader. Meanwhile, a few steps away in the Senate chamber – an apparent model of steadiness though not of serenity – Republican Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky exceeded the 16-year record as party leader held by former Democratic senator Mike Mansfield, who was the leader from 1961 to 1977.

In Mr. McCarthy’s desperation to win the position in the House, the California Republican agreed to permit as few as five dissidents to initiate a process that would remove the speaker from office. That concession to the GOP rebels would transform the House, which gives the majority outsized influence and power, into a temperamental twin of the Senate, where minorities have outsized power. Of the many uncertainties that provided the backdrop of Tuesday’s tumult, the prospect for this rules change is perhaps the most critical.

But what is known is that, on Tuesday anyway, the emphasis of the Republicans was on internecine tensions instead of presenting the House, and the public, with an issues roadmap for the 118th Congress. Lawmaker after lawmaker took the floor to speak of opposition to President Joe Biden and the Democratic-controlled Senate, but for hours the Republicans were not capable of healing the rifts among various strains in their own ranks.

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Uyghur refugee vote by Canada MPs angers China

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OTTAWA –

The Chinese government says a motion MPs passed Wednesday to provide asylum to persecuted Uyghurs amounts to political manipulation by Canada.

MPs including Prime Mister Justin Trudeau unanimously called on Ottawa to design a program that would bring 10,000 people of Turkic origin, including Uyghurs, to Canada from countries other than China.

They passed a motion that acknowledges reports that Uyghurs outside China have been sent back to their country of birth, where they have faced arrest as part of Beijing’s crackdown on Muslim groups.

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Foreign ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning said in Beijing that people in the Xinjiang region live in peaceful harmony, contradicting widespread reports of forced labour and sexual violence.

An English translation by the ministry said Canada should “stop politically manipulating Xinjiang-related issues for ulterior motives,” and Ottawa is “spreading disinformation and misleading the public.”

The non-binding motion said the government should come up with the outline of a resettlement program by May 12 that would begin in 2024 and meet its target within two years.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 2, 2023.

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Republicans push to remove Ilhan Omar from foreign affairs panel

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Washington, DC – In one of his first moves since becoming speaker of the United States House of Representatives, Kevin McCarthy is leading an effort to block Congresswoman Ilhan Omar from serving on the chamber’s Foreign Affairs Committee over her past criticism of Israel.

On Wednesday, the Republican majority in the House advanced a resolution to remove Omar from the panel. Democrats opposed the move, accusing McCarthy of bigotry for targeting the politician – a former refugee of Somali descent who is one of only two Muslim women serving in the US Congress.

A few Republicans initially opposed McCarthy’s effort, casting doubt over his ability to pass the resolution against Omar, given the GOP’s narrow majority.

But on Wednesday, all 218 House Republicans present voted to move forward with the measure, as Democrats remained united in support of Omar with 209 votes. A final vote is expected on Thursday as progressives rally around Omar.

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The Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC) defended Omar, calling her an “esteemed and invaluable” legislator.

“You cannot remove a Member of Congress from a committee simply because you do not agree with their views. This is both ludicrous and dangerous,” CPC Chair Pramila Jayapal said in a statement on Monday.

The resolution

The resolution aimed at Omar, introduced by Ohio Republican Max Miller on Tuesday, cites numerous controversies involving the congresswoman’s criticism of Israel and US foreign policy.

“Congresswoman Omar clearly cannot be an objective decision-maker on the Foreign Affairs Committee given her biases against Israel and against the Jewish people,” Miller said in a statement.

Omar retorted by saying there was nothing “objectively true” about the resolution, adding that “if not being objective is a reason to not serve on committees, no one would be on committees”.

While the Republican resolution accuses Omar of anti-Semitism, it only invokes remarks relating to Israel, not the Jewish people.

For example, the measure calls out the congresswoman for describing Israel as an “apartheid state”, although leading human rights groups – including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch – have also accused Israel of imposing a system of apartheid on Palestinians.

Early in her congressional career in 2019, Omar faced a firestorm of criticism when she suggested that political donations from pro-Israel lobby groups – including the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) – drive support for Israel in Washington.

Omar later apologised for that remark but Palestinian rights advocates say accusations of anti-Semitism against Israel’s critics aim to stifle the debate around Israeli government policies.

In the past two years, AIPAC and other pro-Israel organisations spent millions of dollars in congressional elections to defeat progressives who support Palestinian human rights, including Michigan’s Andy Levin, a left-leaning, Jewish former House member.

‘Different standards’

Although the Democratic Party is standing behind Omar now, the Republican resolution prominently features previous criticism against the congresswoman by top Democrats.

Lara Friedman, president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace, an advocacy and research group, said Republicans are trying to validate their talking points against Omar by using the statements and actions of Democrats.

“They own this,” she said of Democrats who previously attacked Omar. “They made a decision in the last few years to jump on board and score political points at Ilhan’s expense … And that decision is now the basis for the resolution that is being used to throw her off the committee.”

Friedman added that Omar and her fellow Muslim-American Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib are held to “different standards” when it comes to addressing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Both legislators were the subject of racist attacks by former President Donald Trump who in 2019 tweeted that they, along with other progressive congresswomen of colour, “should go back to the broken and crime-infested places from which they came”.

Omar in particular became a frequent target of Trump’s anti-refugee rhetoric in the lead-up to the 2020 elections. At one rally in 2019, Trump failed to intervene as his supporters chanted “send her back” in reference to Omar.

Friedman said attacks on Omar appeal to the Republican base and play well for the party politically.

“It’s a really handy way to embarrass and corner Democrats because when Democrats vote against this tomorrow, the Republican argument is going to be: ‘I don’t get it. You said all these things [against Omar]. Why are you not holding her accountable?’ Politically, this is just fantastic for them.”

For her part, Omar has remained defiant, calling McCarthy’s effort to remove her from the committee, against initial opposition from his own caucus, “pathetic”.

Yasmine Taeb, legislative and political director at MPower Change Action Fund, a Muslim-American advocacy group, praised Omar’s commitment to a “human rights-centered foreign policy”.

“Rep. Omar speaks truth to power – a rarity in Congress. And House Republican leadership would rather waste time by attacking a progressive Black Muslim woman and pushing a far-right agenda than working on addressing the needs of the American people,” Taeb told Al Jazeera in an email.

Omar has been a vocal proponent of human rights and diplomacy in Congress. While her comments about Israel often make headlines, she criticises other countries too – including those in the Middle East – for human rights violations.

Still, critics accuse her of perpetuating anti-Semitic tropes in her criticism of Israel and even allies have described some of her comments as “sloppy”, if not malicious.

On Thursday, Win Without War, a group that promotes diplomacy in US foreign policy, decried the Republican push against Omar as an attempt to strip the House Foreign Affairs Committee of a “progressive champion and skilled legislator who challenges the political status quo”.

“Rep. Omar has helped raise the bar for progressive foreign policy in Congress. She has steadfastly advocated for cuts to the Pentagon budget, held US allies accountable for human rights abuses, and confronted the racism and Islamophobia present in US foreign policy,” Win Without War executive director Sara Haghdoosti said in a statement.

Committee wars

Congressional committees serve as specialised microcosms of Congress. The panels advance legislation, conduct oversight and hold immense power over the legislative process.

Usually, the party in power appoints the chairs and majority members of committees, while the opposition party names its own legislators to the panels.

But back in 2021, Democrats voted to remove Republican Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene from her assigned committees for past conspiratorial, anti-Semitic and Islamophobic comments.

That same year, the Democratic House majority also formally rebuked Paul Gosar, another far-right Republican, for sharing an animated video that depicted him killing Democratic Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

Now, Greene is an outspoken proponent of removing Omar from the Foreign Affairs Committee.

“No one should be on that committee with that stance towards Israel,” Greene said earlier this week. “In my opinion, I think it’s the wrong stance for any member of Congress of the United States – having that type of attitude towards our great ally, Israel.”

After Greene was stripped of her committee assignments, McCarthy had openly promised payback against the Democrats if they became the minority in the House, an event that came to pass in the 2022 midterm elections.

“You’ll regret this. And you may regret this a lot sooner than you think,” McCarthy said at that time.

The newly elected speaker has also blocked Democrats Adam Schiff and Eric Swalwell from joining the intelligence committee. Schiff was the former chair of the panel.

Meanwhile, Republican Congressman George Santos, who is facing calls to step down for lying about his heritage and professional and personal history, “temporarily recused” himself from committee assignments as he is being investigated over his campaign conduct.

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Former interim Conservative leader Candice Bergen steps down as MP

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Member of Parliament and former interim Conservative leader Candice Bergen has resigned her seat in the House of Commons.

Bergen, 58, has represented the Manitoba riding of Portage—Lisgar since 2008. She served as interim leader of the Conservatives and leader of the Opposition from February to September 2022. Prior to that, she served as deputy leader of the Conservatives.

In a video posted to Twitter Wednesday, Bergen said she has submitted a letter of resignation, “ending an incredible and very fulfilling 14 years.”

Bergen thanked her constituents, family, volunteers, staff and political colleagues “on both sides of the aisle, regardless of your political stripe.”

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Bergen announced in September of last year that she would not seek reelection. Pierre Poilievre replaced her as Conservative leader that month.

Bergen did not give a specific reason for her resignation and did not mention any future plans.

“I’m choosing to leave now not because I’m tired or I’ve run out of steam. In fact, it’s the exact opposite,” she said in the video.

“I feel hopeful and re-energized. Hopeful for our strong and united Conservative Party, and our caucus, under the courageous and principled leadership of my friend, Pierre Poilievre.”

Bergen ended her goodbye message on a hopeful note.

“With God’s grace and God’s help, I believe that the best is yet to come. Thank you so much Portage—Lisgar, and thank you Canada.”

The Toronto Star was the first to report the story.

“On behalf of the Conservative Party of Canada, thank you Candice for your leadership, your devotion to our Conservative movement and your service to the people of Portage—Lisgar, and all Canadians,” Poilievre said in a tweet Wednesday.

The news means there will be a byelection in Portage—Lisgar to replace Bergen.

Manitoba Finance Minister Cameron Friesen announced last week that he’d step down as an MLA to seek the federal Conservative nomination in the riding.

The death of MP Jim Carr late last year set up a byelection in another Manitoba riding — Winnipeg South Centre. The Alberta riding of Calgary Heritage and the Ontario riding of Oxford are also up for byelections later this year.

“I thank her for her many years of service,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said of Bergen in a media scrum Wednesday.

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