Iowa’s two Republican senators on Saturday condemned Representative Steve King’s remark questioning why white supremacy is considered offensive, the latest blowback from party leaders who remained largely silent over the years as the G.O.P. congressman made racist remarks and demeaning insults about immigrants.
Mr. King, a longtime Iowa lawmaker who narrowly won re-election in November, drew rebukes from Democrats as well and sparked talk of a House censure resolution this week after The New York Times published an article about Mr. King’s influence on President Trump, the border wall debate and the intensification of white identity politics in the Republican Party. In an interview with The Times, Mr. King said at one point: “White nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization — how did that language become offensive?”
Reflecting on the record number of black people and women in the new Congress, he added: “You could look over there and think the Democratic Party is no country for white men.”
On Saturday morning Iowa Senator Joni Ernst wrote on Twitter: “I condemn Rep. Steve King’s comments on white supremacy; they are offensive and racist — and not representative of our state of Iowa.” She linked the tweet to an opinion article published Friday by Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina, a fellow Republican and the Senate’s lone black G.O.P. member, who called out his party for staying silent on racist comments.
Iowa’s senior senator, Charles E. Grassley, also criticized Mr. King in remarks to Axios published Saturday. Mr. Grassley had endorsed Mr. King in November for re-election, even after another Republican leader had denounced Mr. King as a white supremacist.
“Iowa needs Steve King in Congress. I also need Steve King in Congress,” Mr. Grassley said in that endorsement.
Before this week, Iowa’s senior Republicans often courted Mr. King and his supporters. Ms. Ernst appeared with him at a rally in his district the Monday before Election Day, after he had endorsed a Toronto mayoral candidate with neo-Nazi ties. Gov. Kim Reynolds named Mr. King a co-chair of her 2018 campaign and declined to distance herself when pressed before the election, saying, “I can’t be held responsible for everyone’s comments.”
Mr. King has made racist comments for more than a decade that party leaders have mostly ignored. But his statements published Thursday in The Times went further than ever, triggering a barrage of public criticism from top House Republicans as well as a former G.O.P. presidential candidate and conservatives in the media.
Building a border wall, ending birthright citizenship and disparaging undocumented immigrants. Representative Steve King championed anti-immigration views years before President Trump made them a focal point of his administration.Published OnCreditCreditSteve Pope/Associated Press
Mr. King took to the House floor on Friday to try to explain his remarks, saying he was “simply an American nationalist.” He did not apologize for his remarks to The Times.
In a statement on Saturday, the Congressional Black Caucus called for Mr. King to be stripped of his committee assignments. The chairwoman of the committee, Karen Bass, a Democrat of California, said in the statement, “Like Donald Trump, Steve King has sought again and again to give comfort to white supremacists, something that should never be allowed in the halls of Congress or the Oval Office.”
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, a California Republican, was among the party leaders who denounced him. “Steve’s language is reckless, wrong and has no place in our society,” Mr. McCarthy said.
Representative Liz Cheney of Wyoming, the third-highest ranking Republican in the House, wrote in a tweet that Mr. King’s remarks “are abhorrent and racist and should have no place in our national discourse.”
Mr. Scott’s opinion column in The Washington Post focused on criticizing his party for frequently failing to condemn people like Mr. King.
“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 said.
In a statement after The Times article was published online, and in a six-minute speech in the House on Friday, Mr. King strenuously denied that he was a white nationalist or white supremacist.
“I reject those labels and the evil ideology they define,” he said. He did not dispute making the original remarks, but argued that he was raising a historical question about how and when the phrases came to be used to criticize people.
Mr. King, a 69-year-old former bulldozer operator who is in his ninth term, began his speech by saying he had made “a freshman mistake” by speaking to The Times.
Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina criticized his party for failing to condemn comments like Mr. King’s.CreditErin Schaff for The New York Times
“I regret the heartburn that has poured forth upon this Congress and this country and especially in my state and in my congressional district,” he said.
There were rumblings in the House on Friday about trying to formally reprimand Mr. King. Representative Tim Ryan, Democrat of Ohio, said that he was considering drafting a House resolution censuring him. And at least one top Democratic leader, Representative James Clyburn of South Carolina, the highest ranking African-American in Congress, told CNN he would support Mr. Ryan’s move.
Still, it was far from clear that Democrats would actually follow through. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi condemned the comments and acknowledged Democratic interest in taking some action, but said late Friday she was not prepared to make any announcements.
Democrats are focused on the shutdown fight with the president and may be inclined to let Republicans sort out their own dirty laundry.
And strategists in both parties said the reaction, to some degree, reflects the degree to which Mr. King has become a millstone for his party. If Mr. King is on the ballot in 2020, they say, it could benefit Democrats by depressing support for the Senate re-election effort of Ms. Ernst in Iowa.
“What I don’t like is he’s a drag on all our candidates and an in-kind contribution to Pelosi,” said David Kochel, a Republican strategist in Iowa.
Two Iowa Republicans announced this week they would challenge Mr. King in a primary in 2020 for his Fourth District seat. He will likely face severe difficulties in raising money if he seeks re-election.
Jeb Bush, the former 2016 presidential candidate, wrote on Twitter, “Republican leaders must actively support a worthy primary opponent to defeat King, because he won’t have the decency to resign.”
The conservative National Review published an editorial on Friday: “Dump Steve King.”