House GOP wins bipartisan passage on antisemitism bill as protests flare

The House offered its first concrete response to a wave of pro-Palestinian campus protests nationwide that have often included antisemitic language.

The legislation, led by Rep. Mike Lawler (R-N.Y.) and passed on a bipartisan 320 to 91 vote, would update the definition of antisemitism used in enforcing federal anti-discrimination laws. But the Senate, as of Wednesday, has indicated no plans to act on it.

The action comes amid a wave of escalating protests — and arrests — across the country in locations as varied as Columbia University, UCLA, the University of Texas at Austin, George Washington University and scores of other schools. Republicans have vowed to keep the spotlight on the demonstrations, with Speaker Mike Johnson vowing to stay focused on the issue “like white on rice.”

Both parties have condemned the explicitly antisemitic components of the protests, though many Democrats have expressed unease at cracking down on the free speech rights of students. That nuance isn’t convincing to the bill’s sponsor.

“Anyone who votes against this bill because they would rather put political expediency and electoral politics ahead of anything else has no business being a member of Congress,” Lawler said on the floor. “’Never again’ is now and we must act.”

Overall, 70 Democrats sided with 21 of the chamber’s Republicans in opposing the measure.

The bill would require the Education Department to codify the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of antisemitism as it enforces anti-discrimination laws — adding heft to a Trump-era executive order for stricter enforcement. Republicans have brushed aside Democratic calls for consideration of a broader bipartisan bill that would establish a national coordinator to counter antisemitism.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell indicated antisemitism “needs to be dealt with, with consequences” and said Republicans would pursue ways of penalizing colleges for not adequately addressing the problem.

“We’re taking a look at how to condition that money on how they handle their campuses in situations like this,” McConnell said at a press conference Wednesday. “We’re serious about this. We’re going to take a look at what legislatively we might do.”

Many Democrats told POLITICO as late as Wednesday morning they were still undecided on how to vote on the measure. They viewed floor consideration of the legislation as a cynical attempt to divide their party without adequately tackling antisemitism in the U.S.

“It’s a political stunt,” said Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.), ranking member of the Foreign Affairs Committee. “It may divide us on this vote, but it’s not going to divide us … we won’t be in dysfunction like [Republicans] are.”

Many privately conceded the scenes at campuses around the country likely boosted the vote total for the legislation — even as some lawmakers view the text as poorly-written and unserious.

“That doesn’t mean a lot of us aren’t still struggling with the substance of it,” Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.) said in a brief interview. “It’s not a well-written bill. It’s not a bill that’s ever going to become law. … They are succeeding in getting us fighting about it.”

The bill had a number of notable opponents, such as Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) who is one of the most senior elected Jewish officials in the country. The American Civil Liberties Union also pushed back on the legislation, warning in a letter that it would “likely chill free speech of students on college campuses by incorrectly equating criticism of the Israeli government with antisemitism.”

Palestinian advocates have also criticized the Trump-era executive order and similar measures over concerns that codifying a the IHRA definition could also lead to punishing pro-Palestinian speech on campus.

President Joe Biden’s White House notably did not come out with a formal statement of administration policy on the legislation, as it had for various other House measures on the floor this week.

Senate Republicans urged Majority Leader Chuck Schumer to take up the legislation after its passage in the House. He’s given no indication that he intends to do so.

“That’s a bill that we should probably bring to the floor and pass over here as well,” said Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) on Wednesday.

Bianca Quilantan contributed to this report.