September 15th, 2009
04:29 PM ET
9 years ago

House deeply divided over proposed rebuke of Obama heckler

Rep. Joe Wilson, R-South Carolina, shouts 'You lie!' during President Obama's recent address to Congress.

Rep. Joe Wilson, R-South Carolina, shouts 'You lie!' during President Obama's recent address to Congress.

WASHINGTON (CNN) - House Democrats said Tuesday they will formally admonish Rep. Joe Wilson for yelling out in Congress that President Barack Obama lied, calling it a serious violation of the chamber's rules that must be rebuked to maintain civil discourse.

Republicans, meanwhile, rallied around Wilson, with many saying a planned resolution disapproving of Wilson's heckle is a petty partisan distraction from more serious issues.

The shout of "you lie" by Wilson during Obama's health-care speech to a joint session of Congress has become a major story on its own, with the House scheduled to vote later Tuesday on a resolution expressing disapproval. It is the mildest form of discipline the House can exercise for misconduct on the House floor.

"Whereas the conduct of the Representative from South Carolina was a breach of decorum and degraded the proceedings of the joint session, to the discredit of the House: Now, therefore, be it resolved that the House of Representatives disapproves of the behavior of the Representative from South Carolina, Mr. Wilson, during the joint session of Congress held on Sept. 9, 2009," says a text of the resolution posted on the legislative Web site of House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Maryland.

Before debate on the measure began, one Democrat argued the disrespect shown Obama by Wilson never would have happened to a white president.

"It only happened when this country elected a president of color," said Rep. Hank Johnson of Georgia. Another noted the heckling of the president in the House was unprecedented, and the chamber needed to enforce discipline in order to maintain civility.

"No president has been subjected to that type of treatment on the floor of the House of Representatives, and if we go down that road, then it's the law of the jungle, and I think that's just wrong," said Rep. Gerry Connolly of Virginia.

However, House Minority Leader John Boehner of Ohio called the resolution "piling on."

Boehner noted that Wilson had already apologized to Obama. He accused Democrats of trying to "change the subject" away from what he claimed is an increasingly unpopular health-care reform bill.

Virginia GOP Rep. Eric Cantor noted that Obama had asked Congress in his speech to "set aside partisan bickering," while Rep. Mike Pence, R-Indiana, railed against the "petty politics" of the debate surrounding Wilson's behavior.

"The American people want less politics and more jobs," Pence said.

The House Democratic leadership agreed to move forward with the vote after meeting to discuss the issue Monday evening, according to two Democratic leadership aides.

Kristie Greco, spokeswoman for the House Democratic whip Rep. James Clyburn of South Carolina, said the resolution "goes directly to the issue of his conduct on the House floor."

Greco said the discussion at Monday evening's leadership meeting was about "how this speaks to the breach of decorum alone, and not addressing the issue sets a precedent for bad behavior."

"We're not the British Parliament for a reason," Greco added.

Under House rules, each side will get 30 minutes to debate the resolution. Leaders have not determined who will offer it on behalf of the Democrats, and the text has not been released.

Though most Republicans have agreed it was inappropriate for Wilson to shout "You lie!" at the president, several GOP aides told CNN they expect Republicans to oppose the resolution.

Wilson on Sunday described his loud retort to Obama's statement that illegal immigrants would not be covered under the Democrats' health-care bill as "a town hall moment." But he made it clear he would not apologize on the House floor. "I called immediately, I did apologize, but I believe one apology is sufficient," he said.

Wilson returned to the floor Monday during the time allotted to members to give one-minute speeches on the topic of their choice. But Wilson spoke about his town hall meetings on health care over the congressional recess and made no mention of his comments last Wednesday night or any apology.

Last week House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called the episode "unfortunate" and told reporters at her weekly news conference, "It's time for us to talk about health care and not Mr. Wilson." But when Pelosi met with Democratic leaders later that day her colleagues argued that unless Wilson apologized on his own they would want a formal vote on a resolution of disapproval, according to several Democratic sources.

On Tuesday, Pelosi refused to comment on the resolution to reporters outside the weekly Democratic caucus meeting, saying that journalists should be focusing on the health-care reform issue.

Others were eager to offer their thoughts.

Johnson said Wilson's comment amounted to a "wink" of approval to right-wing extremists who have brought highly charged language and imagery - such as posters depicting Obama with a Hitler mustache or as an African witch doctor - to the health-care debate.

"He (Wilson) did not help the cause of diversity and tolerance with his remarks," Johnson said. "If I were a betting man, I would say that it instigated more racist sentiment feeling that it's okay - you don't have to bury it now."

Johnson added that failing to rebuke Wilson would bring increased racism in the public discussion on health care, saying: "You can bring it out and talk about it fully, and so I guess we will probably have folks putting on white hoods and white uniforms again riding through the countryside intimidating people."

"That's the logical conclusion if this kind of attitude is not rebuked, and Congressman Wilson represents it," Johnson said. "He is the face of it and that's why I support the resolution."

To Rep. Jason Altmire of Pennsylvania, a member of the moderate Blue Dog coalition, the issue is simple: "He has not apologized to the House for the embarrassment he brought to the" chamber.

Democratic Rep. Barbara Lee of California, a leading member of the Congressional Black Caucus, said Wilson's violation of House rules was "egregious enough that it warrants an apology on the floor." Without that, the resolution of disapproval is called for, she said.

On the Republican side, Rep. Steve King of Iowa began circulating a letter among House Republicans last weekend urging Wilson not to apologize on the House floor.

The letter states, "We urge that you hold your ground against those who seek partisan advantage and reject all demands for additional redress. When the president of the United States accepts an apology, no observer has an additional claim."

Republican aides said the reaction over Wilson's outburst has given them an opportunity to elevate their concerns about the issue of illegal immigration in the health-care debate.

Looking ahead to Tuesday, one Republican leadership aide predicted, "If there is a debate, you're going to see Republicans talk about policy and not Joe Wilson."

Filed under: House • Joe Wilson
soundoff (77 Responses)
  1. Pat Mat

    This "demand" for a House apology is ridiculous. Free speech must begin in the House. The problem is - the Democrats don't want it made public - after all they have enjoyed having Obama on TV 4 or 5 times per week for the last year and a half - and they don't want ANYONE interferring with that publicity. Geez - move on people. All of this is shallow and insignificant. All of the Democrats have just been chastizing the American public for "speaking out" at Town Hall meetings - and calling the citizens "gangs" etc - including Pelosi. Where is HER apology for her insult against the American public? The Dems "speak out" - the problem is they don't want anyone who opposes their view to do the same.

    September 15, 2009 04:58 pm at 4:58 pm |
  2. inofritzn

    Is this all you have to worry about reps? Good to know you're staying busy up there

    September 15, 2009 04:58 pm at 4:58 pm |
  3. red33,cedar rapids, ia

    How many times does he have to apologize to satisfy Pelosi etal??
    Did they put a specific number on it?

    September 15, 2009 04:59 pm at 4:59 pm |
  4. Don't blame me-I voted for the american

    Live by the sword, die by the sword. It was okay for congressional democrats to call Bush every name in the book, but criticism of the Dear Leader is deemed "treason" by the left.

    Orwell was off by 26 years.

    September 15, 2009 05:00 pm at 5:00 pm |
  5. Steve (the real one)

    Fine but let me tell you liberals in the house one thing, we are watching! Rangel should have been first. His financial dealings broke trust AND THE LAW but that is fine with the liberals! Do NOT step out of line! Do not break decorum, do not break the law! You work for us. You are NOT royalty! Real hope and change is coming in 2010! Brush up on your second set of skills! You will need them! I will be joining ACORN so I can vote out liberals in several states and districts!

    September 15, 2009 05:02 pm at 5:02 pm |
  6. eolufemi

    The best part about all this is how the republicans are being given the proper respect in presenting their perspective, without having their time interrupted by raucous frat-boys.

    September 15, 2009 05:03 pm at 5:03 pm |
  7. Manny

    I wonder, would this man have called George W. a liar about going to war in Iraq?

    Where was the healthcare debate 6 years ago? Why weren't people feeling this strongly about change then? Just like some Americans, point me in the right direction, "I'll believe anything"!!

    September 15, 2009 05:05 pm at 5:05 pm |
  8. Michael M, Phoenix AZ

    Both the Senate and House also need to take notice of the number of lawmakers (mostly if not all, Republicans) who were "texting" or talking on their cell phones during the President's talk. Pure case of "classless adolescence" behavior.

    September 15, 2009 05:07 pm at 5:07 pm |
  9. B

    This incident has to be taken care of with a Rebuke for histories sake.
    If these things go unaccounted for, it will continue in the future.

    This arrogant idiot has to get called out for what he is !!

    September 15, 2009 05:07 pm at 5:07 pm |
  10. Joe Wilson is the Ann Coulter of the U.S. House

    Repukes are proud of Wilson for his angry yell at Obama. Of course they will defend him because they agree with his actions which set the precedent for others to do the same with no consequences other than to claim that you privately apologized upon the insistence of your party leadership. Wilson has reaped an unjust enrichment, profiting from his misconduct by fundraising following the flap. Wilson appeals to uneducated racists of which is why he will win 2010.

    September 15, 2009 05:07 pm at 5:07 pm |
  11. Paul from Phoenix

    Because the House doesn't have better things to do with their time and with our taxpayer money.

    September 15, 2009 05:07 pm at 5:07 pm |
  12. Dave From Philly

    Republicans are not interested in health care. They are also not interested in helping the president to rebuild our country. They are only interested in getting back in power.

    Wilson should apologize on the house floor or leave congress all together. If Kanye, and Serena can made sincere, soul searching apologies, than Rep Wilson should be able to do the same.

    September 15, 2009 05:08 pm at 5:08 pm |
  13. Paul from Phoenix

    Why not go after Rangle for tax evasion?

    September 15, 2009 05:08 pm at 5:08 pm |
  14. Christine

    There is an etiquette standard for his actions and he should be punished/rebuked/made to kick his own butt. Whatever. But it needs to happen. It would help if they were to close door the process and not give this tool any more than the 15 minutes he has run up on this and.. Let's move the heck on. We are all wearing waders in this crap so let's help get stuff done and start being Americans gathered around a good cause which right now amounts to getting this country back to the top of the food chain again.

    September 15, 2009 05:09 pm at 5:09 pm |
  15. Carol

    This does not need to be viewed as a racist moment, but rather what it was: a moment of extreme lack of respect for the office of the Presidency and the President of the United States. Our nation is rapidly losing all sense of civility and common courtesy, and it is a mistake to spin this in any other light. It's bad enough as it was....let's not make it worse! Censor him, rebuke him, disapprove-then get back to work on the issues our country faces.

    September 15, 2009 05:10 pm at 5:10 pm |
  16. Anonymous

    Joe the heckler is nothing more than a neoconfederate bigot!!!!!!!!!!!!! South Carolina is too small to be a country and too large to be an insane asylum!! the family trees of South Carolina politicians do not branch!!! He has embarrassed the state and the entire South!!

    September 15, 2009 05:10 pm at 5:10 pm |
  17. Rob

    Wilson is a clown. We need civility back in politics. CENSURE HIM!

    September 15, 2009 05:10 pm at 5:10 pm |
  18. rick

    only in American can a man be punished for saying the truth. obama and pelosi lie to americans all the time, yet no punishment. Its no wonder we fastly becoming nothing. obama nees to apologize to the American people.

    September 15, 2009 05:11 pm at 5:11 pm |
  19. Carnell

    Thank You Congressman Of Georgia D-Hank Johnson. Your Comment Got To One Of My Biggest Bones Of Contention With This Whole Issue. That Question Is What If The Roles Were Reversed The Day R-Joe Wilson Called President Barack Obama A Lie?

    September 15, 2009 05:12 pm at 5:12 pm |
  20. Rob

    Good to know that with skyrocketing unemployment, a disasterous economy, deteriorating national security, and basically America crumbling before our eyes that the Dems can focus on the major issues, like getting a guy WHO ALREADY APOLOGISED TO THE PRESIDENT to either apologise on the floor or get a wrist slap. Pelosi is unbelieveable.

    Can't wait til 2010 when we can vote these self-centered, do nothing Dems out of office and finally get some work done.

    The official symbol of the Democrat party should be a flushing toilet.

    September 15, 2009 05:16 pm at 5:16 pm |
  21. be in tn

    Joe the Hecker is nothing more than a neoconfederate bigot!!! He is an embarrassment to the state of South Carolina and the entire South. Seems that the family trees of SC politicians have no branches and it has already been said that, "SC is too small to be a country and too large to be an insane asylum.

    September 15, 2009 05:18 pm at 5:18 pm |
  22. George the Democrat Obama fanatic.

    This is a non issue for my democratic party. Leave this alone and focus on creating a good health care bill. The best way to prove Wilson wrong is to produce a good bill.

    September 15, 2009 05:20 pm at 5:20 pm |
  23. George the Democrat Obama fanatic.


    This is a non issue for my democratic party. Leave this alone and focus on creating a good health care bill. The best way to prove Wilson wrong is to produce a good bill.

    September 15, 2009 05:20 pm at 5:20 pm |
  24. Matt

    And then to justify himself, Wilson claims he has a special sensitivity to the issue because he was an immigration attorney...only...he wasn't. EVER. Look it up.

    September 15, 2009 05:21 pm at 5:21 pm |
  25. malclave

    It was okay for the Democrats to boo Bush in the 2005 SOTU.

    It was okay for Start to call Bush a liar on the House floor.

    But I guess Democrats and people who support them are just hypocrites.

    September 15, 2009 05:21 pm at 5:21 pm |
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