Everyone knew Steve King’s history of racist rhetoric. It had gone on for more than a decade. But House Republicans did something about it this week, as Democrats moved to denounce King on the House floor.
After years of tolerating King’s offensive remarks on race, minority groups and immigrants, House GOP leaders reached their breaking point — a New York Times interview in which the Iowa Republican defended white nationalism and white supremacy.
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While the King drama played out over the past few days, some Republicans seized on the incident to reorient the party’s position — and maybe more importantly, its language — on race.
Yet with President Donald Trump regularly stoking racial division from the Oval Office, it’s not clear the action against King will amount to anything meaningful for the GOP. There are numerous House Republicans who have said the party needs to learn the painful message sent by voters in November: The GOP must change, now. Exiling King seemed like a good place to start for some rank-and-file lawmakers.
“At some point, you have to say, this guy needs to shut up, or he needs to leave,” said Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho), giving voice to what many of King’s colleagues have said privately.
Others cited King’s language in The New York Times interview as reason enough to act.
“There’s no spin on white supremacy,” said a House GOP aide. “White supremacy enters a new realm.”
On Monday, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California and GOP leaders kicked King off three committees. The next day, every Republican voting joined Democrats to condemn King in a resolution of disapproval, a rare public rebuke of a fellow House member.
Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, the No. 3 House Republican, suggested King should resign — echoing some of the strongest statements so far by party leaders.
“I agree with Leader McConnell, actually. I think he should find another line of work,” Cheney said Tuesday.
Cheney was referring to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s remarks the day before. The Kentucky Republican said King was “unworthy of his elected position.”
For his part, McCarthy didn’t call on King to resign. He also declined to say if House GOP leaders would back a primary challenger over King.
“I think that’s up to Steve King. The voters have elected him,” McCarthy said when asked about King’s future.
Questioned on why Republicans only moved against King now — after more than a dozen years of racially charged remarks — McCarthy pointed out that he’d just become Republican leader this month.
“I’ve been leader for just a short amount of time,” McCarthy told reporters as the House was getting ready to rebuke King, though he has served in GOP leadership since 2011. “When this took place, I sat down with Steve, but I also went back and looked at everything else” King had said.
McCarthy, who had a copy of King’s previous remarks on his phone, confronted King on the issue, and he wasn’t pleased with what he heard in response.
“When I just combined everything else, I didn’t see how we didn’t act now,” McCarthy said. “There is a fine line. You can’t ever let this continue.”
McCarthy said he initially considered removing King from the Judiciary Committee , but then decided to boot King from Agriculture and Small Business as well.
That decision came after a closed-door meeting Monday afternoon, during which several GOP lawmakers urged McCarthy to take King off all his committees — especially Agriculture, which is a particularly coveted post for an Iowa Republican, according to a person familiar with the conversation.
“When I went through everything, I thought, ‘If you come off one, why wouldn’t it be right to come off all of them for this behavior?'” McCarthy added. He said other GOP leaders agreed.
But McCarthy — like other Republicans — steered clear of comparing King to Trump.
“All I know is Steve King is a member of our conference,” McCarthy said. “I am the leader of the Republican Conference. When I see someone use the terms that Steve King used, there’s no place in this House for that.”
Earlier on Tuesday, McCarthy spoke to a group of House Republicans and laid out the reasoning for barring King from committee work. King was not present. Just one member, Rep. Louie Gohmert of Texas, defended King in the meeting.
The pressure had been building for years to act on King, several GOP lawmakers insisted, although it came to a head after the party suffered its worst electoral defeat in four decades.
“One time, something might be taken out of context, maybe even two times,” Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-Ala.) said. “The thing that’s most concerning is that this keeps coming up. I think that’s why, at this juncture, the leadership felt like they needed to do something, to say they wanted to distance themselves, to say this isn’t what Republicans stand for.”
“It was just time to say, ‘Enough is enough,'” added Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.). “People had issued statements before [criticizing King]. The behavior really hadn’t changed. Words ran out of force, and we had to take a forceful action. So we did.”
Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) said it was the language King used in the recent interview that drove Republicans to act.
“I think the words that were reported were shocking for many of us. I think it was the shock of using ‘white supremacy’ in what appeared to be in approval,” Meadows said.
Asked whether it felt different from King’s previous comments, Meadows said: “That’s gonna be up to the people of Iowa if it’s different or not.”
While King said he’s not leaving Congress — at least right now — his political opponents back home are rushing to capitalize on his problem. Iowa state Sen. Randy Feenstra, a conservative Republican, launched the website RetireSteveKing.com, and cited the GOP leadership’s decision to boot King from committees as a big part of his campaign.
“Today, Northwest Iowa doesn’t have a voice in Congress because Steve King’s caustic nature has left us without a seat at the table,” Feenstra said in a statement. “By losing his seat on the Agriculture Committee, Iowa farmers are left without a vote on the important committee for the first time in 120 years.”