House eyes bipartisan vote on antisemitism plan that divides Dems

A significant bloc of House Democrats appears poised to back an antisemitism bill that’s slated for a floor vote Wednesday as campus protests against Israel’s handling of the war in Gaza pile new political pressure on President Joe Biden’s party.

The bill that the GOP is preparing to pass this week would use the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s working definition of antisemitism when enforcing federal anti-discrimination laws — adding heft to a Trump-era executive order on the matter, but sparking concerns among some progressives about overly policing criticism of the conservative Israeli government.

House Democratic leaders have responded to the GOP’s plans by calling for action on a separate bipartisan measure that would create the first-ever national coordinator to counter antisemitism. But Majority Leader Steve Scalise (R-La.) told POLITICO in a brief interview that his conference was not satisfied with that approach.

“There’s a lot of flaws with that bill,” he said. “It basically just creates another office in the White House. We need to confront [antisemitism] head-on out in these college campuses where it’s happening.”

The measure that’s slated for a Wednesday floor vote boasts 15 House Democratic cosponsors, but no Senate Democratic cosponsors. The Biden White House, despite issuing a host of statements about energy and environmental legislation on Monday, did not put one out that formally weighs in on the antisemitism legislation.

Amid that silence, many House Democrats are inclined to support the bill, even as it continues to divide their caucus.

“I’m going to vote for it,” said Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), a former member of caucus leadership. “We need to speak out strongly against antisemitic behavior, antisemitic verbiage. They can say it, but our free speech is saying: ‘That is not what we are as a country.’”

The congressional action comes amid a wave of campus protests around the country that have escalated into charges of antisemitic behavior that’s left students feeling unsafe. On top of hundreds of arrests of pro-Palestinian protesters across the nation, students occupied a building on Columbia University late Monday as demonstrations sweep the New York institution.

Speaker Mike Johnson spoke at Columbia last week and intends to unveil a House-wide plan to address on-campus antisemitism later Tuesday.

Yet even as they indicated they’d likely support this week’s legislation, many staunchly pro-Israel Democrats expressed reservations about it.

“We shouldn’t have anyone think that this is a substantive bill that’s going to affirmatively do something about the horrendous rise in antisemitism,” Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), who’s expected to back the measure, said in an interview. “Republicans are really more interested in messaging and not substantively addressing the problem.”

That rationale mirrors the one that progressives like Rep. Jerry Nadler (N.Y.), top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee and the most senior Jewish member of the House, used to blast the legislation.

“It doesn’t do anything to combat antisemitism,” Nadler said in an interview. “It’s pure demagoguery.”

Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), a progressive Jewish Democrat who’s been critical of Israel, said he still needed to review the legislation but that Republicans are “unnecessarily picking a fight because there are multiple definitions of antisemitism out there.”

“It seems like they’re using it as a partisan club, which is a cheap way to go,” he said in a brief interview.

Nicholas Wu contributed.