House Begins Debate Over Whether to Rebuke Wilson
By Paul Kane and Ben Pershing
The House has begun an hour-long debate Tuesday on a resolution rebuking Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.), whose heckling of President Obama last Wednesday sparked a week's worth of controversy increasingly tinged by allegations of racism.
As the debate neared, Wilson took the chair in the House chamber usually reserved for the Republican manager of floor debate, scribbling marks down on what appeared to be a short speech. GOP aides said that they expect Wilson will address the House.
After shouting "You lie!" at Obama during his address to a joint session of Congress in the House chamber, Wilson issued a statement of apology and also called the White House to say the same. But he has steadfastly refused to apologize on the House floor, a step that Democrats, led by House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (Md.) and Majority Whip James E. Clyburn (S.C.), say is necessary as a sign of respect both to the president and to the body's rules of decorum.
The resolution states: "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."
The debate comes as tensions are rising in the House over the perceived racial implications of Wilson's outburst and the ensuing controversy.
Some members of the Congressional Black Caucus amplified on Tuesday their complaints that Wilson's shout was symptomatic of the the increasingly heated rhetoric directed at Obama throughout the summer as the health-care debate wore on, including posters shown outside the Capitol on Saturday depicting the president with an Adolf Hitler mustache. They suggested that not reprimanding Wilson would further incite what they consider hate speech.
"I guess we'll have folks putting on white hoods and robes again and riding through the countryside intimidating people," Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.), a CBC member, told reporters Tuesday afternoon. "That's the logical conclusion if this kind of attitude is not rebuked. That's why I'm for this resolution."
Republicans rejected this accusation and said that the American people had grown deeply concerned about the economic downturn and the resulting government involvement in the financial markets and auto industry has left voters angry. "As all of us have seen over the last several weeks, perhaps months, there is a real fear out there across this country that somehow we are losing the grip on the America that we all know and love," House Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.) said Tuesday morning.
Other Democrats continued to stress that the reason for the resolution was to rebuke Wilson for his conduct -- interrupting the president during an address -- rather than the substance of what he said.
The resolution is being offered by Hoyer and Clyburn. Clyburn is the highest-ranking African American in Congress, and the South Carolina Democrat has been the leading voice in favor of the resolution against Wilson, his home-state colleague. Hoyer, a former leader of the administration committee that oversees chamber rules, is viewed as the party's pre-eminent expert on institutional regulations.
Hoyer told reporters that he did not see a racial motivation in Wilson's outburst, but he said that the protests around the country "have been unusually harsh ... unusually vitriolic."
"I hope they're not racially motivated," he said.
Democrats are eager to emphasize that Wilson's words violated House guidelines. To bolster that argument, the House Rules Committee issued a memo Tuesday on "Decorum in the House and in Committees."
"As a guide for debate, it is permissible in debate to challenge the President on matters of policy," the memo states. "The difference is one between political criticism and personally offensive criticism."
Specifically, the memo adds, "it has been held that a member could not call the President a 'liar.' "
Some Democrats have expressed wariness of Tuesday's vote, warning that the Wilson controversy is distracting from the more important issue of health-care reform. And privately, some in the party worry about exacerbating a fight that has energized the Republican base and drawn more attention to the politically treacherous topic of illegal immigration. At the same time, some Republicans believe that Wilson's behavior merits an apology on the House floor.
But despite those few defectors, the vote to rebuke Wilson is expected to fall largely along party lines.
September 15, 2009; 4:18 PM ET
Categories: Health Reform , House
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