House Republican leaders removed Representative Steve King of Iowa from the Judiciary and Agriculture Committees on Monday night as party officials scrambled to appear tough on racism and contain damage from comments Mr. King made to The New York Times questioning why white supremacy is considered offensive.
The punishment came on a day when Mr. King was denounced by an array of Republican leaders, though not President Trump. The Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, suggested Mr. King find “another line of work” and Senator Mitt Romney said he should quit. And the House Republicans, in an attempt to be proactive, stripped him of the committee seats in the face of multiple Democratic resolutions to censure Mr. King that are being introduced this week.
Those measures would force Republicans to take a stand on the House Democratic majority’s attempt to publicly reprimand one of their own.
Mr. King, who has been an ally of President Trump on the border wall and other issues, has a long history of making racist remarks and insults about immigrants, but has not drawn rebukes from Republican leaders until recently. In November, top Iowa Republicans like Senator Charles E. Grassley endorsed Mr. King for re-election even after one House Republican official came out and denounced him as a white supremacist.
But in an interview with The Times published last week, Mr. King said: “White nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization — how did that language become offensive?”
Speaking to reporters on Monday night after the House Republican leadership team acted, Representative Kevin McCarthy of California, the minority leader, said he was not ruling out supporting a censure or reprimand resolution against Mr. King. He said the Republicans are not removing Mr. King from the G.O.P. House conference itself, so he can still attend its party meetings, and it was up to Iowans whether Mr. King should stay in office.
“This is not the first time we’ve heard these comments,” Mr. McCarthy said of Mr. King, an acknowledgment of the racist language the congressman has used before. “That is not the party of Lincoln and it’s definitely not American.”
Mr. McCarthy, who conferred privately with Mr. King for an hour before the vote, did not say why the most recent comments were a breaking point given Mr. King’s long public record of similar remarks. “Maybe I did not see those, but I disagree with these.”
The full Republican conference must still technically ratify the leader’s decision, but Mr. McCarthy presented the matter as closed.
Mr. King remained defiant after losing his committee seats, releasing a long statement insisting that his comments in the Times article had been misunderstood. He said he had been referring only to “western civilization” when he asked “how did that language become offensive,” not “white nationalist” or “white supremacist.”
“Leader McCarthy’s decision to remove me from committees is a political decision that ignores the truth,” he said.
He said he told Mr. McCarthy, “You have to do what you have to do and I will do what I have to do.” He pledged to continue to “point out the truth” and serve his district for “at least the next two years.”
The push to condemn Mr. King illustrated how alarmed senior Republicans are about the party’s image just two months after they lost 40 House seats, most of them in suburban or diverse districts — including seven in Mr. McCarthy’s home state of California, where the G.O.P. is on the brink of extinction.
The condemnations of Mr. King stood in stark contrast to the lawmakers’ willingness to tolerate President Trump’s frequent offensive and insensitive remarks about migrants, black people, Native Americans and other minorities.
Just last week, the president used the Oval Office to unleash a blistering assault on undocumented immigrants, portraying them as criminals in a fashion that harked back to an earlier era of American politics but rarely heard from a president in modern times. And on Sunday night, Mr. Trump invoked the Wounded Knee massacre of hundreds of Native Americans as an attempt to joke about Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.
“I’m glad that they are finally taking action after all of these years of Steve King slandering immigrants and Hispanics, but the president of the United States is also doing that and he just said something about Elizabeth Warren a few evenings ago that was also racially ugly and we haven’t heard a word of condemnation from anyone in the Republican Party about that,” said Representative Joaquin Castro, Democrat of Texas.
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Congressional Republicans have continued to embrace the president and his hard-line immigration politics, averting their gaze from his inflammatory rhetoric out of fear their core voters will punish them if they stray from Mr. Trump.
The president, when asked by reporters on Monday about Mr. King’s remarks, said, “I haven’t been following it.”
Republicans are now trying to get ahead of a fast-moving political problem while the country is in the midst of a lengthy government shutdown over a border wall by President Trump, who in many ways patterned his immigration policies and rhetoric on those of Mr. King.
Mr. McCarthy called a special meeting of the Republican Steering Committee to remove Mr. King from Judiciary — which has jurisdiction over immigration, voting rights and impeachment — and Agriculture, which is a prized committee for Iowans. Mr. King also lost his seat on the Small Business Committee. The steering committee vote was unanimous.
While Republican officials quickly turned on Mr. King, the party also came in for criticism from the Senate’s lone black Republican, Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina. He noted that the G.O.P. has long remained silent in the face of racist comments.
“Some in our party wonder why Republicans are constantly accused of racism — it is because of our silence when things like this are said,” Mr. Scott wrote in a Washington Post opinion column.
It is not clear what, if any, additional steps congressional Republican leaders will take with Mr. King. The National Republican Congressional Committee indicated Monday that they were not ready to step away from him.
“The N.R.C.C. does not get involved in primaries and isn’t going to comment on a hypothetical general election two years away,” said Chris Pack, a spokesman for the House campaign arm.
Democrats are moving to censure or reprimand the Iowa congressman, a stinging penalty. Among them were Representative James Clyburn of South Carolina, the highest ranking African-American in Congress, who introduced a measure Monday night in the form of a resolution of disapproval of Mr. King’s comments and white nationalism.
Democratic leaders in the House have yet to say what they will do with the competing censure resolutions, but are inclined to allow a vote of some sort related to Mr. King’s remarks, according to one senior Democratic aide.
In the interview with The Times, Mr. King also reflected on the record number of minorities and women in the new Democratic-controlled House. “You could look over there and think the Democratic Party is no country for white men,” he said.
Mr. King’s hard-line immigration policies and demeaning comments about Hispanics foreshadowed Mr. Trump’s nativist rhetoric in his 2016 campaign, in his two years in the White House and during the government shutdown over a border wall. The president once boasted to Mr. King that he raised more money for him than anyone else, Mr. King recalled in the Times article, which traced how the Iowa congressman helped write the playbook for white identity politics that dominate the Republican Party under Mr. Trump.
He has already drawn one serious primary opponent, state senator Randy Feenstra, for the 2020 campaign and some high-profile Republicans have indicated they will not embrace his re-election.
“It does open the door for other individuals to take a look,” Gov. Kim Reynolds of Iowa said in a television interview last week of Mr. King’s closer-than-expected victory last year.
Ms. Reynolds said she was staying out of the primary “right now,” but multiple Iowa Republicans said the state’s senior elected officials were unlikely to endorse Mr. King again and would wait until there is more clarity in the primary field before rallying to one of his G.O.P. challengers. Other Western Iowa Republicans are expected to challenge Mr. King, who has fended off primaries before but did so with the support of his party and its top leaders.
In addition to Ms. Reynolds’s criticism, Iowa Republican chair Jeff Kaufmann said the state party would “remain neutral” in Mr. King’s primary.
Also, Iowa’s two Republican senators, Mr. Grassley and Joni Ernst, along with Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, who had appointed Mr. King a co-chairman of his 2016 presidential campaign, all rebuked Mr. King in recent days.
All had eagerly embraced him in the past because of his standing with the state’s most conservative voters — keys to winning statewide elections in Iowa, which holds the first-in-the-nation presidential nominating contest.
Mr. Grassley had endorsed Mr. King in November for re-election, even after the chairman of the House Republican election committee denounced Mr. King as a white supremacist.
“Iowa needs Steve King in Congress,” Mr. Grassley said in that endorsement. “I also need Steve King in Congress.”
Ms. Ernst, who faces re-election in 2020, appeared with Mr. King at a rally in his district the Monday before Election Day last year, after he had endorsed a Toronto mayoral candidate with neo-Nazi ties.