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House rebukes Wilson for outburst at Obama

GOP dismisses rare resolution as witch hunt

By Carl Hulse
New York Times / September 16, 2009

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WASHINGTON - Representative Joe Wilson was formally rebuked by the House yesterday for his outburst during President Obama’s health care address. The vote came after a congressional clash over civility that showcased the deep partisan divisions in the House.

In a mainly party line vote of 240 to 179, the House held that by shouting “You lie’’ during the president’s speech, the South Carolina Republican committed a “breach of decorum and degraded the proceedings of the joint session, to the discredit of the House.’’

The resolution was the latest - and many lawmakers hoped final - development in an episode that generated significant public attention after Wilson’s surprising act. It attracted millions of dollars in political contributions to both parties and made Wilson a hero to some and an embarrassment and symbol of Republican disrespect to the president to others.

Seven Republicans joined 233 Democrats in approving the resolution; 12 Democrats joined Wilson and 166 other Republicans in opposing it. Five other Democrats voted “present.’’

Among them was Representative Barney Frank of Massachusetts, who said: “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.’’

Among other New England representatives, all voted to admonish Wilson, except for William Delahunt of Massachusetts, and Paul Hodes of New Hampshire, who voted no. Carol Shea-Porter of New Hampshire also voted present, and Stephen Lynch of Massachusetts did not vote.

Leading Democrats said the resolution, which put on the record that the House “disapproves of the behavior of the Representative from South Carolina, Mr. Wilson, during the joint session of Congress held on Sept. 9, 2009,’’ was needed to protect the integrity of the House and deter such acts in the future.

“This is about the rules of this House and reprehensible conduct,’’ said Representative James E. Clyburn of South Carolina, the number three Democrat in the House and a home-state colleague of Wilson. Clyburn led the Democratic argument for the resolution.

Democrats characterized the sanction as mild and said they would not have pursued any action at all had Wilson taken the floor and apologized to his colleagues for disrupting the address.

Wilson briefly argued his own case yesterday and defiantly refused to offer the apology demanded by House Democrats, saying Obama had already accepted his regrets and that should have ended the matter.

“The challenges our nation faces are far bigger than any one member of this House,’’ said Wilson, who was comforted and encouraged by his Republican colleagues as he faced the vote against him. “It is time that we move forward and get to work for the American people.’’

The three ranking members of the House Republican leadership all took the floor to assail Democrats for conducting what Representative John A. Boehner of Ohio, the party leader, described as a witch hunt against Wilson.

They accused Democrats of politicizing the incident to shift attention from their internal party struggles over health care legislation.

The House historian’s office said no lawmaker had ever previously been held to account for behavior toward the president during an appearance on Capitol Hill, though lawmakers have been cited for personal attacks on a president during routine House debate when the chief executive was not present.

House guidelines on the rules of debate say it is impermissible to refer to the president as a liar.

The White House pointedly stayed out of the dispute.

“That’s House business,’’ said Bill Burton, a White House spokesman. “Congressman Wilson called the White House to apologize. The president accepted his apology.’’