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

House deeply divided over proposed rebuke of Obama heckler

[cnn-photo-caption image= caption="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. pam Eugene OR

    That's funny Moderate Democrat!
    Wilson disrespected all of us when he shouted that at OUR President in that building.

    September 15, 2009 05:58 pm at 5:58 pm |
  2. commend since

    The truth is...There are so many in america that will never accept the President of the United States of America,"being a man of color.No matter what kind of good come out this new adminstration whether the health care bill turns out to be the best thing to happen to all american,a more greater chance at bringing piece in the middle east,being a president,"that sees greatness in all americans,"not just a few.I believe,"that President Obama is the kind of president we need at a time of war,economy problems,unemployment.As a american,"i ask all those that are not blinded by hate,and fearing someone that's only trying to help or believeing someone who's only instress is to keep this president from doing what he was elected to do.

    September 15, 2009 06:00 pm at 6:00 pm |
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