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GOP's tolerance for Steve King is ending, after lasting too long

Republicans have apparently reached their breaking point with Iowa's Steve King. The overarching question remains unanswered: what took them so long?
Rep. Steve King speaks with reporters as he leaves the House Republican Conference meeting, Oct. 4, 2013.
Rep. Steve King speaks with reporters as he leaves the House Republican Conference meeting, Oct. 4, 2013.

Last week, Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), whose record on matters of race and immigration have made him a notorious figure in modern American politics, shared a line with the New York Times that was new, even for the far-right Iowan.

"White nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization – how did that language become offensive?" the eight-term Republican congressman said. "Why did I sit in classes teaching me about the merits of our history and our civilization?"

Republicans wasted little time in denouncing King's comments, and on Sunday, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) told CBS News's "Face the Nation" that GOP lawmakers would take some kind of "action" in response to the controversy.

Last night, the party's plan started to come into focus.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., told reporters Monday that the GOP had voted unanimously to remove Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, from all committees amid the rising uproar over his recent comments about white nationalism."We will not be seating Steve King on any committees in the 116th Congress. It was a unanimous decision..." McCarthy told reporters. "In light of the comments -- these are not the first time we have heard these comments. That is not the party of Lincoln, and it is definitely not America. All people are created equal in America, and we want to take a very strong stance about that."Asked whether he would support a campaign challenge to King, McCarthy said that decision was up to the voters -- but "I think we spoke very loud and clear that we will not tolerate this type of language in the Republican Party."

This was probably the first step, not the last. The House is also expected to vote this week on a resolution formally condemning King for his comments.

The Iowa Republican, not surprisingly, is outraged, and has accused his own party's leaders of launching an "unprecedented assault" on his free-speech rights. (It's an unpersuasive case: no one has a First Amendment right to a congressional committee assignment.)

But what stood out for me is Kevin McCarthy's boast that GOP officials have made clear that they "will not tolerate this type of language in the Republican Party." Haven't they spent several years proving the opposite?

To be sure, I was skeptical Republicans would take any actions at all to punish King, so these latest developments are welcome. Stripping the Iowan of his committee assignments is a significant punishment.

But to know anything about Steve King is to know that his comments last week were very much in line with his breathtaking record on matters related to race and diversity.

And yet, Republicans not only tolerated his rhetoric, they elevated King to a position of great influence in GOP politics. House Republicans allowed King and his allies to help guide the party's positions on immigration legislation, while also allowing him to chair a Judiciary Committee panel on the Constitution and social justice.

Many Republicans eagerly endorsed his re-election bids, while seeking and welcoming his endorsement.

Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) made headlines yesterday by calling for King's resignation, though the senator neglected to mention the support he extended to the Iowan in the recent past. Near the height of Romney's 2012 presidential campaign, he told one audience, "I'm looking here at Steve King.... He needs to be your congressman again. I want him as my partner in Washington!"

It's not that King was some kind of reasonable moderate on race at the time. Republicans have known for years exactly who King is and just how ugly his ideology is. They made a choice not to care.

I will gladly give GOP officials credit for finally doing the right thing, but the larger question remains unanswered: what took them so long?