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WASHINGTON — Rep. Steve King dodged more serious punishment in the U.S. House Wednesday as the 4th District Republican lawmaker defied calls for him to resign over his recent remarks about white supremacy.

House Democratic leaders referred to the Ethics Committee a pair of resolutions introduced by rank-and-file party members that called for the body to censure King for his history of racially-charged comments.

The most serious sanction for a House member, beyond expulsion, censure has been imposed only six times in the past 100 years, all for official misconduct.

The referrals came a day after the House overwhelmingly approved a less severe form of punishment for his quote in a New York Times story last week in which he asked, "White nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization — how did that language become offensive?"

King was among 424 House members who voted for the resolution of disapproval, introduced by Rep. James Clyburn, the third-ranking House Democrat. The resolution, which named King only once, stated the House rejects white nationalism and white supremacy as “hateful expressions of intolerance that are contradictory to the values that define the people of the United States.”

Democratic Rep. Bobby Rush of Illinois, the only lawmaker to oppose the measure, argued the House should take the more serious step of censuring King for his "repugnant and racist behavior."

Under House rules, Speaker Nancy Pelosi had until Wednesday to decide what to do with censure resolutions sponsored by Rush and Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio.

While acknowledging either resolution likely would pass, House Democratic leaders worked behind the scenes to scuttle the efforts because of concerns a floor vote might set a dangerous precedent for policing members’ speech, the Washington Post reported Wednesday.

"I don’t know that it’s a good thing for us to talk about censure for things that are done outside of the business of the House of Representatives,” Clyburn, the highest-ranking African American congressional leader, told the Post. "We should be very, very careful about doing anything that constrains, or seems to constrain, speech."

By doing so, you “open the window for anybody to attack speech, no matter if it’s Democrats or Republicans,” Clyburn added in a subsequent interview with the Post.

Some conservative lawmakers, for example, have suggested the House also rebuke freshman Rep. Rashida Tlaib for her comments this month about President Trump. The Michigan Democrat pledged at a private event this month to “impeach the motherf-----”

By deferring the censure resolutions to the Ethics Committee, House Democratic leaders can keep the measures "bottled up," the Post reported.

In addition to the resolution of disapproval approved Tuesday, Democratic leaders noted House Republicans on Monday punished King by denying him committee assignments for the next two years. King had served on the Agriculture, Small Business and Judiciary committees in the last Congress, and he chaired Judiciary's subcommittee on the Constitution and Civil Justice.

"I think we have spoken, and we have spoken on both sides of the aisle that this is unacceptable rhetoric and behavior." Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, D-Maryland, told the Post Wednesday.

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House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy also rejected the idea of censuring King.

“I think the action we have taken is stronger and I think at this point we should move on,” McCarthy, R-California, said Tuesday on the Ralph Bailey talk radio program.

Left with no committee assignments and diminished clout in his caucus and chamber, a growing chorus of voices have called on King to resign. In separate editorials Wednesday, both The Sioux City Journal, the largest daily newspaper in the 4th District, and the Des Moines Register, the state's largest daily, called on the nine-term congressman to step down so a special election could be held to fill his seat.

But a defiant King showed no signs of going anywhere. Asked if he would consider resigning, the outspoken congressman told WHO Radio's Simon Conway Tuesday, "No, no chance at all. I'll go out of this place dead before that happens and the Lord will have to make that decision."

In a separate interview with conservative talk radio host Ed Martin, King lashed out at McCarthy and Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming.

On McCarthy, who succeeded former Speaker Paul Ryan as the top GOP house leader this session, King said, "He decided he's going to believe the New York Times over Steve King."

Cheney, the third-ranking Republican House leader, was one of the first GOP elected officials to call for King's resignation.

"She’s been here two years. What would give her the moral authority or the intellectual judgement to do something like that?” King said.

King has repeatedly insisted the New York Times "completely mischaracterized" his comments and that he rejects the ideology of white supremacy, adding that he comes from a family of abolitionists who "paid a price with their lives to make sure that all men and now all women are created equal."

The Republican said he was advocating for Western civilization, not racism, in the nearly hour long interview.

For the first time, the White House on Wednesday weighed in on King's quote in the Times story. Presidential press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders described the remark as "abhorrent" and praised the move by House Republicans to him of his committee assignments.

Asked Monday about King's remarks Trump said: "I haven't been following it."

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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