WASHINGTON — Democrats on Tuesday defeated an effort by Representative Kevin McCarthy, the top House Republican, to censure Representative Maxine Waters for suggesting that racial justice protesters should “get more confrontational” if the Derek Chauvin jury did not return a guilty verdict.
In an episode designed by Republicans for maximum political advantage, Democrats stayed united in a 216-to-210 vote to quash Mr. McCarthy’s resolution to formally rebuke Ms. Waters, a prominent Black congresswoman who is a frequent target of insults by conservatives. The House vote unfolded hours before the jury found Mr. Chauvin, a white police officer, guilty of murdering George Floyd, an unarmed Black man.
Mr. McCarthy said Ms. Waters, 82, the chairwoman of the House Financial Services Committee, had incited violence when she rallied in Brooklyn Center, Minn., over the weekend with demonstrators protesting the death of Daunte Wright, a Black man, at the hands of a white police officer.
Asked on Saturday what protesters should do if no guilty verdict were reached in the Chauvin trial, Ms. Waters said: “We’ve got to stay on the street, and we’ve got to get more active. We’ve got to get more confrontational. We’ve got to make sure that they know that we mean business.”
Ms. Waters, a 15-term Californian, later said she had been referring to civil rights-era demonstrations, which used tactics of civil disobedience, and Democratic leaders stood behind her.
But Mr. McCarthy — who this year declined to punish Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, Republican of Georgia, who had previously endorsed killing Speaker Nancy Pelosi — saw an opening to try to put politically vulnerable Democrats on the spot. He portrayed Ms. Waters’s remarks as condoning violence and effectively dared her colleagues to back her by putting the matter to a vote, a perilous proposition given that Democrats’ razor-thin margin of control in the House left almost no room for defections.
Still, Democrats held together. Ms. Pelosi, also of California, told reporters on Monday that Ms. Waters had no reason to apologize for her remarks, and she could be seen whipping votes on the House floor on Tuesday.
“I love my colleagues and they love me,” Ms. Waters said after the vote. “I don’t want to do anything to hurt them or hurt their chances for re-election. I will make sure that they are comfortable with my kind of advocacy so that we can all be sure that we can do the right thing.”
After the measure’s defeat, Republicans lost no time in mounting the political attacks that it had been intended to feed. Mr. McCarthy issued a news release saying that Democrats had “decided to stand on the side of violence instead of the law.”
House Republicans’ campaign arm blasted out news releases to the districts of endangered Democrats claiming they had voted “for violence.”
In a tweet on Tuesday, Mr. McCarthy called Ms. Waters’s actions “beneath the dignity of this institution,” and said that “they raised the potential for violence, directed lawlessness, and may have interfered with a co-equal branch of government.”
His resolution cited at length comments made by Judge Peter A. Cahill, who presided over Mr. Chauvin’s case and who said on Monday in an unusual aside that Ms. Waters’s comments may have given the defense an opening to overturn the trial on appeal. Judge Cahill said he wished “elected officials would stop talking about this case, especially in a manner that is disrespectful to the rule of law.”
Mr. McCarthy’s effort was particularly striking after he declined to take any action against Ms. Greene, who has referred to the deadly Capitol riot on Jan. 6 as a “1776 moment.” Democrats denounced his move as hypocritical because he has also not condemned inflammatory speech used by colleagues in his party around the time of the riot.
“Clean up your mess, Kevin,” Representative Hakeem Jeffries of New York, the No. 4 House Democrat, said at a news conference before the vote on Tuesday. “Sit this one out. You’ve got no credibility.”
The attempt to censure Ms. Waters resurrected tensions between Democrats and Republicans in the House, where many Democrats are still reluctant to work with those who had cast doubt on the legitimacy of President Biden’s victory or encouraged their supporters to march on the Capitol. In the immediate aftermath of the storming of Congress, some Democrats had clamored to censure or even expel Republican members who used bellicose language in the days leading up to the assault, but those efforts went nowhere.
Some Democrats who were unhappy with Ms. Waters’s comments feared that moving ahead with censuring her would unleash an endless tide of retributive measures, a concept that Representative Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland, the No. 2 House Democrat, invoked in a speech before the vote.
“If confrontation is subject to sanction, then we’re going to have a lot of people on your side of the aisle who we believe are confrontational every day,” he said, adding that Democrats had not advanced a number of similar resolutions targeting Republicans.
“This makes it harder, however, not to proceed on numerous resolutions on my side of the aisle,” Mr. Hoyer said.
The situation was reminiscent of the one Mr. McCarthy faced when Democrats pressured him to punish Ms. Greene for her past comments. Democrats moved unilaterally to strip her of her committee seats, citing the Republican leader’s unwillingness to do so — an argument that Mr. McCarthy parroted on Monday.
“Speaker Pelosi is ignoring Waters’ behavior,” Mr. McCarthy wrote on Twitter on Monday. “That’s why I am introducing a resolution to censure Rep. Waters for these dangerous comments.”
The House rarely moves to censure lawmakers. Steve King, a former Republican congressman from Iowa, for example, was never censured for a litany of racist comments he made while in office, including claiming that nonwhite people had not contributed as much as white people had to civilization and that “mixing cultures will not lead to a higher quality of life but a lower one.”
Charles B. Rangel, a former Democratic congressman from New York, was the last House lawmaker to be censured, in 2010, for a litany of transgressions related to financial corruption.