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Islamophobic comments are the latest racist rhetoric to come from fringe lawmakers

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The Colorado Republican Congresswoman Lauren Boebert recently suggested Minnesota Democratic Congresswoman Ilhan Omar was a suicide bomber. Omar is Muslim. The comments are Islamophobic. And they are the latest in a string of racist rhetoric from fringe lawmakers in the House. There followed a phone call between Boebert and Omar, which failed to defuse tensions. Omar pressed for a public apology. She didn't get one. She revealed she has since received multiple death threats. Omar played one call for reporters.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: You're a [expletive] traitor. You will not live much longer [expletive], I can almost guarantee you that.

KELLY: NPR's Deirdre Walsh, who covers Congress, joins us. Deirdre, wow. It's hard to listen to.

DEIRDRE WALSH, BYLINE: It is. Hey there, Mary Louise.

KELLY: Yeah, hey. I want to start with consequences. The House recently censured and stripped committee assignments from another Republican, Paul Gosar, after he tweeted out an inappropriate video. Might Boebert face similar consequences here?

WALSH: It's really unclear. I mean, there are some House Democrats who want to see that happen to Boebert as well. This morning, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told House Democrats this kind of rhetoric from Boebert can't be tolerated. She called it dangerous and indecent. But she also said Republicans are making controversial comments deliberately because they want to get publicity from it. She admitted there's even a divide among Democrats about how to respond.

I talked to Missouri Democrat Emanuel Cleaver. A man who threatened to kill him was recently sentenced to three years in jail. He's worried about these threats against his colleagues. But he also said efforts to vote to denounce these kinds of things won't stop them and could actually embolden members to do it again. Here's Cleaver.

EMANUEL CLEAVER: Some people may wear that as a badge of honor. Look what I've done for the movement to save our democracy.

KELLY: Deirdre, what is the leader of Republicans in the House, Kevin McCarthy - what's he doing to address all this?

WALSH: Not very much at all - he has not publicly condemned Boebert's comments. He's trying to work behind the scenes to try to tamp things down. But so far, it's not working. You know, those on the far right of the House Republican Conference are closely allied with former President Trump. And they've been adopting sort of similar behavior in terms of racist comments, offensive language. McCarthy wants to be elected House speaker if Republicans do win control of the chamber next fall. So he has to walk this line between trying to sort of tone down these comments but not tick off the Trump wing because he needs votes from all across the conference if he's going to be elected speaker.

KELLY: Well, what is the conversation all across the conference among House Republicans about how to deal with these offensive comments from fringe members?

WALSH: It's really broken out into the open this week. And the lack of civility between members inside the Republican conference is really striking. You know, the party's struggling with how to deal with those on the right. And few members are really saying, like, this is not OK. We saw what happened when one did - South Carolina Republican Nancy Mace. She criticized Boebert's comments. And then she was subject to a string of insulting tweets from Marjorie Taylor Greene, another right-wing member, who said Mace was not a true conservative. And she threatened to support a primary challenge to defeat her. I talked to Mace today, who pushed back at Greene.

NANCY MACE: I'm not going to sit here and be a doormat for anybody else. So I'm just, like - you know, if someone's going to pick a fight with me, I'll punch back. This is important to me. It's too important to me to allow someone to lie about my record.

WALSH: Mace is saying that if Republicans want to win next fall, they have to attract the support of independents and suburban voters. And this kind of out of line rhetoric from people like Boebert could really jeopardize that.

KELLY: That is NPR's Deirdre Walsh. Thank you.

WALSH: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.