President Donald Trump pauses while speaking Tuesday as reporters leave the room during a Cabinet meeting in the Cabinet Room of the White House in Washington. Credit: Alex Brandon | AP

WASHINGTON — A divided House voted Tuesday to condemn President Donald Trump’s racist remarks telling four minority congresswomen to “go back” to their ancestral countries, with all but a handful of Republicans dismissing the rebuke as harassment while many Democrats pressed their leaders for harsher punishment of the president.

The imagery of the 240-to-187 vote was stark: A diverse Democratic caucus cast the president’s words as an affront to millions of Americans and descendants of immigrants while Republican lawmakers — the majority of them white men — stood with Trump against a resolution that rejected his “racist comments that have legitimized fear and hatred of new Americans and people of color.”

Trump insisted in a string of tweets Tuesday morning that he’s not a racist — “I don’t have a Racist bone in my body!” he wrote — and the top two Republicans in Congress, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California, made identical statements when pressed on Trump’s remarks: “The president is not a racist.”

Trump also lashed out at the four Democratic women — Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan — for the third day in a row, accusing them of “spewing some of the most vile, hateful, and disgusting things ever said by a politician in the House or Senate.” The Republican National Committee provided a list comments to bolster Trump’s contention, but in none did the four women say they hate America or wanted to leave, as the president has asserted.

Three of the four lawmakers were born in the United States, and Omar is a naturalized U.S. citizen who was born in Somalia.

“I know racism when I see it. I know racism when I feel it. And at the highest levels of government, there is no room for racism,” Rep. John Lewis, D-Georgia, who fought for civil rights in the 1960s, said in the final minutes of the House debate.

The debate played out on a raucous House floor as lawmakers attacked each other’s motives and repeatedly questioned whether their opponents had violated long-standing rules of decorum — rules that ultimately were changed after Republicans challenged Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s use of the word “racist.”

Pelosi, D-California, said the words “are disgraceful and disgusting, and those comments are racist,” careful not to label Trump himself a racist. “How shameful to hear him continue to defend those offensive words — words that we have all heard him repeat, not only about our members, but about countless others.”

Moments later, Rep. Douglas Collins, R-Georgia, moved to have Pelosi’s words taken down, a rarely invoked procedure that halted debate for more than an hour while the House parliamentarian examined whether they violated the chamber’s standards of decorum.

A visibly frustrated Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, D-Missouri, who was presiding over the House, reprimanded his colleagues, saying that despite his efforts to be fair, they “don’t ever want to pass up an opportunity to escalate.”

“We just want to fight,” he said.

The words had indeed violated the rules, according to House precedent, and Democrats proceeded to vote on party lines to overrule it in this instance and allow Pelosi’s remarks to be printed in the Congressional Record, the official legislative annals.

McCarthy rose to attack Democrats afterward, calling it “a sad day” for the House. “Our rules of order and decency were broken today,” he said.

But Democrats said the day, in fact, was a long time coming — a rare occasion on which members of the Republican caucus have been forced to go on the record regarding Trump’s rhetoric. Since Trump has tightened his grip on the GOP, many lawmakers in his party have gone to great lengths to avoid criticizing him, fearful of the president’s wrath sinking their electoral chances.

“This resolution is harassing the president of the United States,” said freshman Rep. Dan Meuser, R-Pennsylvania.

Democrats insisted that the vote was a test for the Congress and the nation.

“We know who he is,” Rep. Tom Malinowski, D-New Jersey, said of Trump. “The question is, only question, is who are we. Are we still the country of immigrants?”

Earlier in the debate, there was another tense moment when Rep. Sean Duffy, R-Wisconsin, his voice raised, drew a reproach from Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Washington, over his comments that the four congresswomen at the center of Trump’s tweets are “anti-American.”

“I’ve looked closely at the chain of three tweets, I see nothing that references anybody’s race, I don’t see anybody’s names,” Duffy said, “but the president is referring to people, congresswomen, who are anti-American. And lo and behold everyone in this chamber knows who he is talking about.”

Jayapal called the comments “defamatory,” and asked that Duffy’s words be taken down, but after some back and forth relinquished her request, but said, “it was completely inappropriate to tell any of us are anti-American.”

Trump’s series of tweets and comments began Sunday when the president said the four Democrats should “go back” to “the crime infested places from which they came.”

With his tweets Tuesday, Trump made clear that he didn’t want Republicans to support the resolution. Doing so, he said, would “show ‘weakness.’”

McCarthy said during a morning news conference that he would vote against the resolution and encourage other Republicans to vote against it as well. McCarthy said he did not consider Trump’s tweets to be racist, but about “socialism versus freedom.”

Four Republicans broke ranks — Reps. Will Hurd of Texas, Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania, Susan Brooks of Indiana and Fred Upton of Michigan — and joined Democrats in backing the resolution. Rep. Justin Amash, I-Mich., who quit the GOP earlier this month, also voted for it. Six Republicans did not vote.

In his latest tweets, Trump accused the four lawmakers of being “Horrible anti-Israel, anti-USA, pro-terrorist” and took issue with the “public shouting of the F … word, among many other terrible things.”

Speaking to reporters at the end of a Cabinet meeting at the White House on Tuesday afternoon, he held up some papers and claimed to have “a list of things here said by the congresswomen that is so bad, so horrible that I almost don’t want to read it.”

Asked where the four House Democratic congresswomen should go if they did leave the United States, Trump said “wherever they want, or they can stay.”

“But they should love our country. They shouldn’t hate our country,” he said.

All four lawmakers have called for Trump’s impeachment, and Tlaib has done so using profane language.

Trump frequently used profanity at his campaign rallies, including one in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, in February 2016, when he said that companies that have relocated overseas for more favorable tax rates can “go f—- themselves.”

In a tweet Tuesday, Ocasio-Cortez, who represents a district that includes part of the borough where Trump was born, Queens, took issue with the president’s contention that he is not a racist.

“You’re right, Mr. President – you don’t have a racist bone in your body,” she wrote. “You have a racist mind in your head, and a racist heart in your chest.”

McConnell declined to directly answer repeated questions about whether the tweets were racist, responding to questions on the matter by saying everyone involved should “lower this incendiary rhetoric.”

Pressed repeatedly about how he would react if his wife, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, were told to go back to her native Taiwan, McConnell didn’t answer, instead calling legal immigration “good for America.”

Most Republicans, however, simply sought to turn the tables, accusing Democrats of ignoring inflammatory statements made by the women Trump targeted. Many, for instance, cited comments by Omar that evoked anti-Semitic tropes — comments for which she apologized and to which the House responded by passing a resolution condemning hatred generally.

“I wish Democrats would condemn anti-Semitism and anti-Americanism with same furor that they attack the president,” said Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Missouri.

While Democrats united behind the resolution passed Tuesday, with Pelosi casting it as backing “our sisters,” many rank-and-file members said they wanted to do more. Dozens signed on to a censure resolution filed by Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tennessee, who called Trump’s comments “opprobrious” and deserving of serious rebuke. Censure, he said, would put Trump alongside President Andrew Jackson, who was censured by the Senate in 1834.

“We should put him where he wants to be — with a president who was racist, who had slaves, and led to the Trail of Tears against Native American Indians,” he said.

A thornier possibility for Democrats came from Rep. Al Green, D-Texas, who filed articles of impeachment against Trump on Tuesday under special procedures that could bring them up for a vote by the end of the week.

That poses a dilemma for Pelosi, who has resisted calls to impeach Trump while he has support in the GOP-controlled Senate.

“To tolerate bigotry — racism in this case — is to perpetuate it,” Green said in an interview. “We should not perpetuate this kind of behavior coming from the president, and if we don’t check him, he will continue.”

Senior Democratic aides expect Pelosi will move to either kill the resolution or refer it to committee, effectively sidelining the matter. But either option would pose a difficult vote for her caucus, of which more than 80 members have supported launching an impeachment inquiry.

Washington Post writers Rachael Bade, Ashley Parker and Erica Werner contributed to this report.