Dean Phillips pursuing Middle East subcommittee leadership

Phillips was an ally of former Rep. Ted Deutch, but also became a prominent defender of Rep. Ilhan Omar’s Foreign Affairs Committee seat last week

(Photo by Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)

Rep. Dean Phillips (D-MN) leaves the U.S. Capitol after the final series of votes for the week on February 02, 2023, in Washington, D.C.

Rep. Dean Phillips (D-MN) is seeking the top Democratic slot on the House Foreign Affairs Committee’s Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia subcommittee in a vote that is expected to take place later today.

Phillips’ spokesperson, Bryan Doyle, confirmed the Minnesota legislator’s candidacy for the ranking member position to Jewish Insider on Tuesday, and he does not have any publicly known competition for the spot.

Phillips is a reliable supporter of initiatives from the moderate, pro-Israel wing of the Democratic Caucus supporting Israel and combating antisemitism. He was also among the Jewish Democrats named by former subcommittee chair Rep. Ted Deutch (D-FL) as allies at the time of his retirement from Congress, alongside other colleagues including Reps. Brad Schneider (D-IL), Kathy Manning (D-NC), Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL) and Josh Gottheimer (D-NJ).

The third-term lawmaker was named to a leadership position in the Democratic Caucus late last year, and was one of a small number of Democrats picked to deliver a nominating speech for Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY) on the House floor during the extended speakership voting process in January. He is a member of the moderate Problem Solvers and New Democrats Caucuses, and has described himself to JI as a centrist.

Late last year, Phillips led a letter urging the administration to work to defund the United Nations’ investigation of Israel and was part of a group that in 2021 pressed Democratic leadership for a vote on funding for Israel’s Iron Dome missile-defense system. He’s also been a regular signatory to legislation and letters on issues such as promoting the U.S.-Israel relationship, condemning antisemitism, criticizing Amnesty’s International’s positions on Israel and supporting the Abraham Accords.

Phillips was also among a group of moderate Democrats who expressed early concerns about the Biden administration’s efforts to reenter the Iran nuclear deal. He told JI in 2019 that he supported portions of the original nuclear deal, but was concerned by the sunset clauses.

“I believe deeply in diplomacy,” Phillips said at a press conference last April. “But diplomacy has to be built on a foundation of potential force. And that’s what this is all about. Iran must know the consequences of their inaction, of their inability or unwillingness to abide by any potential agreement.”

Phillips has also urged the administration to take a tougher line on Saudi Arabia, including holding the regime accountable for the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, freezing offensive weapons deliveries and removing the Foreign Terrorist Organization designation of the Iran-backed Houthi militants in Yemen.

Rep. David Cicilline (D-RI), who was elected to take over as the subcommittee chair following Deutch’s retirement last year, will continue on as the top Democrat on a Judiciary subcommittee, rather than the Middle East subcommittee. Manning, who was the vice chair of the subcommittee in the previous Congress, is pursuing the vice ranking member position for the full committee, rather than the subcommittee ranking membership.

“Given her interest in the war in Ukraine and women’s rights in Iran and Afghanistan, she’s excited to work with the committee at large to further solutions to those challenges,” Manning spokesperson Hailey Barringer told JI on Tuesday.

In his first months in Congress, Phillips was critical of fellow freshman Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) for antisemitic comments, reportedly demanding an apology from Omar in a private meeting, leading to an “abrupt end” to that gathering, according to The Washington Post. Phillips again criticized Omar for comments appearing to equate the U.S. and Israel to Hamas and the Taliban in 2021.

But he emerged as a prominent defender of his fellow Minnesotan in recent weeks as Republicans advanced efforts to remove Omar from the House Foreign Affairs Committee in response to those past comments, calling the effort “the very weaponization of antisemitism that I, as a Jewish person, find repulsive, I find dangerous, and above all else, shameful.”

“Representative Omar and I regularly disagree on policy, both domestic and foreign, and she has, at times, used words that have caused concern, offense and even personal pain to me and others,” Phillips said on the House floor last Thursday. “She and I have spoken face-to-face on those occasions and she has apologized, and she continues to learn from those missteps.”

He added that “90% of Jewish members of the United States House of Representatives” would vote in support of Omar “because we believe in the human capacity to learn from mistakes, to make amends and that atonement should be rewarded, not punished. We also believe that the most dangerous acts by elected officials in a democracy are to silence voices of dissent, even those with which we fundamentally disagree. And that’s what this is about.”

In another clash with the far-left, Phillips criticized Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) in 2019 for comparing border detention facilities to concentration camps. And amid a surge in antisemitic attacks that followed the 2021 war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, Phillips said, “I’ll say the quiet part out loud; it’s time for ‘progressives’ to start condemning antisemitism and violent attacks on Jewish people with the same intention and vigor demonstrated in other areas of activism. The silence has been deafening.”

Phillips, whose family came to the U.S. fleeing pogroms in Eastern Europe, has also been vocal against antisemitism on the right, including purportedly confronting a Republican colleague last year over comparisons between vaccination mandates and the Nazi regime.

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