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Protestors at George Washington University

House Republicans find an issue — and Democrats squirm

After flailing around for months unable to unite on anything, House Republicans finally think they’ve found an issue they agree on — countering the scourge of antisemitism on college campuses nationwide.

With 187 days until Election Day, a legislative cupboard that’s all but bare, a presidential impeachment inquiry that’s going nowhere and a speaker who has struggled to generate any discernible level of excitement, the anti-Jewish sentiment that’s spilled out at universities from coast to coast during Gaza war protests offers what Republicans believe is a compelling plot line during the closing months of the 118th Congress.

“It’s morally the right thing to do — to call it out,” Speaker Mike Johnson told us Wednesday evening. “And you have to do the right thing. And you would hope that people would see this as clearly as it is. This is right and wrong. This is good versus evil. There’s no gray area here.”

But for House Democrats, the entire picture is gray — and therein lies what Republicans see as a gigantic political upside.

While the majority of House Democrats still back Israel through its brutal war against Hamas in Gaza, many Democrats have been critical of the way the Israeli forces have conducted the conflict. This represents a serious break in the bipartisan support for Israel, a hallmark of congressional politics for decades.

Furthermore, a large group of House Democrats don’t see vigorous criticism of Israel or the large-scale, pro-Palestinian protests that have broken at numerous schools as inherently antisemitic. Numerous younger, more progressive Democrats back the protests, lamenting the deaths of 30,000-plus Palestinians killed during the war.

Yet the Republicans’ response to the protests — a parade of votes on antisemitism and a stream of high-profile hearings with university officials — is causing serious heartburn in the House Democratic Caucus.

The Democratic angst is compounded by the fact that House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries and his leadership team may end up providing the votes to save Johnson’s speakership. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) has promised to force a floor vote to oust Johnson next week. Jeffries said Democrats have said they will help defeat that effort.

Case in point: On Wednesday, 70 House Democrats voted against a bipartisan bill to broaden the definition of antisemitism used by the Education Department in discrimination cases. The legislation was backed by Jeffries, House Minority Whip Katherine Clark and House Democratic Caucus Chair Pete Aguilar. Only 21 Republicans voted no.

Democratic leaders were hoping that they could keep their defections near 30.

The bill, authored by Reps. Mike Lawler (R-N.Y.) and Josh Gottheimer (D-N.J.), faces an uncertain future in the Senate. Yet inside the GOP leadership, there was glee that they were pushing what they considered to be good policy while also putting Democrats in a bind.

Here’s Rep. Maxwell Frost (D-Fla.), who neatly encapsulates the frustration felt by the rank and file of the Democratic caucus:

One House Democrat, speaking anonymously to avoid angering the leadership, put it this way:

Rep. Becca Balint, a Jewish Democrat from Vermont in her first term, said she’s frustrated with the fact that her caucus doesn’t have conversations about antisemitism.

But consider what House Republicans have in store over the next few months.

Johnson has announced a House-wide investigation into antisemitism on college campuses. This probe will take up the next several months. The House Education and Workforce Committee is bringing officials from Yale, UCLA and Michigan to a hearing next month.

Next week, the House Oversight Committee will hold a hearing to probe why the Metropolitan Police Department rebuffed the George Washington University administration’s request to clean up its campus.

And several GOP-run panels said they’ll spend appropriations season trying to strip federal funds from schools that don’t do enough to protect Jewish students. House Democrats told us this will put many of them in a tough spot.

And there’s a benefit for Johnson too. Just for a moment, Johnson doesn’t have to think about the stinging criticism from Greene and conservatives about his stewardship of the House.

— Jake Sherman, Mica Soellner and Max Cohen

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