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Congressman refuses to apologize for outburst

WASHINGTON – Bitterly divided over an accusatory outburst – ‘You lie’ – lawmakers neared a vote yesterday on admonishing one of their own for his jarring interruption of President Barack Obama.

The proposed resolution of disapproval against Republican Rep. Joe Wilson of South Carolina added to the already-toxic atmosphere of partisanship in the House. Democrats said Wilson’s behavior during Obama’s speech to Congress last week was an egregious display of disrespect for the president that could not be ignored. Republicans accused the majority party of hypocrisy and wasting the taxpayers’ time.

‘That’s a very serious breach of decorum, and if it goes unaddressed then we will probably see other, worse breaches in the future,’ Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., said before floor debate began.

But Rep. Mike Pence of Indiana, a member of the Republican leadership, countered, ‘Our economy is struggling, families are hurting. And yet, this Congress is poised to demand an apology from a man who has already apologized. It’s a disappointment to millions of Americans.’

The Office of the House Historian said the resolution, if approved, would mark the first time in the 220-year history of the House that a member had been admonished for speaking out while the president was giving an address. The vote was on a resolution of disapproval, less severe than other disciplinary action available to the House, including censure or expulsion.

Wilson appeared on the House floor before debate on his behavior began, delivering a short speech without referring to his confrontation with Obama. He spoke of town hall meetings he held over the August recess full of ‘honest patriots’ who ‘want us to work together for health insurance reform but not a government takeover.’

Wilson’s ‘you lie’ outburst came as Obama, during a joint session speech on health care legislation, said that illegal immigrants would not be eligible for federal subsidies to purchase health insurance.

The outburst drew gasps from other members, and Wilson, at the urging of Republican leaders, called White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel to apologize. But he has resisted later suggestions that he go to the House floor to express further remorse.

‘I think that Mr. Wilson could have resolved this himself’ by speaking directly to his House colleagues, said House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md.

Obama accepted the apology and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi initially said it was time to move on to health care and other substantive issues. Republicans agreed. But other Democratic leaders, including third-ranked James Clyburn of South Carolina, pushed for a House vote.

Clyburn, in an interview last week, said Wilson’s behavior was ‘indicative of the combativeness he displays all the time when it comes to politics.’

A leading member of the Congressional Black Caucus, Clyburn perceived it as a snub that Wilson held a town hall meeting on health care this summer at a school in Clyburn’s district – where Clyburn’s children attended – without telling Clyburn.

There also have been suggestions that recent harsh criticism of Obama has been at least partly motivated by race. Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., current head of the Congressional Black Caucus, said that ‘today is about the civility and decorum of the House.’ But she added that we ‘can’t sweep race under the rug – racism is still a factor and must be addressed.’

A House Rules Committee summary of guidelines for members states that while it is permissible to challenge the president on matters of policy during debate, personal attacks are off limits. House rules note that a member could refer to a presidential message as a ‘disgrace to the nation’ but it would be impermissible to call the president a ‘liar,’ a ‘hypocrite’ or say he was ‘giving aid and comfort to the enemy.’

Treatment of Wilson’s shout was complicated by the fact that it occurred not during floor debate but during a televised presidential address to Congress.

In 2007 Republicans unsuccessfully introduced a censure resolution against Rep. Pete Stark, D-Calif., for saying during debate that U.S. troops were being sent to Iraq ‘to get their heads blown off for the president’s amusement.’ Stark later apologized to his colleagues.

On Wilson, there were dissenters from party solidarity on both sides of the aisle. Democratic Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts said he would vote against the resolution because ‘I think it’s bad precedent to put us in charge of deciding whether people act like jerks. I don’t have time to monitor everyone’s civility.’

On the other side, Wilson’s fellow South Carolina Republican Bob Inglis tweeted that he had told other Republicans and Wilson himself that he should apologize anew. ‘He should apologize to House for rule violation. That would end the matter.’

Beyond the controversy swirling around Wilson, there appeared to be some progress in resolving the issue he raised over illegal immigrants receiving federal subsidies to get health care. Democrats have insisted that their proposals specifically prohibit undocumented immigrants from getting assistance. But Republicans say the legislation needs stronger verification requirements.

Senators trying to negotiate a bipartisan deal are working to do just that, a step that could please some Republicans but also antagonize Hispanic lawmakers sensitive to rules making it harder for people to obtain health care.

The dispute, by capturing the attention of Republican and Democratic loyalists, has been a financial bonanza for both Wilson and his expected challenger in next year’s election, Rob Miller. Each has raised some $1.5 million in contributions since the speech last week.

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