Wilson Formally Punished, but Tensions Persist

Posted September 15, 2009 at 6:48pm

House Democrats pushed through a rare formal rebuke of Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) on Tuesday afternoon for screaming “You lie!— at President Barack Obama, but the episode ignited raw racial and partisan tensions that don’t appear likely to subside any time soon.

A defiant Wilson took to the floor to defend his decision to apologize to Obama, but not on the House floor to colleagues. Under pressure from the rank and file and Congressional Black Caucus members, Democratic leaders decided to bring up a resolution of disapproval against Wilson — almost one week after Wilson disrupted Obama’s joint address to Congress on health care reform.

“He graciously accepted my apology and the issue is over,— Wilson said during Tuesday’s debate on the resolution. “It is time to move forward and get to work for the American people.—

But one black Democrat, Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.), charged that Wilson’s outburst and his failure to apologize to the House would encourage racism and likely lead to “white hoods and white uniforms again riding through the countryside intimidating people.—

Democratic leaders were tamer, focusing on Wilson’s breach of House decorum and lack of contrition to his colleagues.

“A simple apology to this House would have ended the matter,— Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said. The resolution “is not about the substance of an issue but about the conduct we expect of one another in the course of doing our business,— Hoyer said.

Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.), who led the charge for the resolution along with other members of the CBC, said Members have a duty to conduct themselves properly and apologize to each other when they don’t.

“We at a minimum are duty-bound to express our disapproval,— Clyburn said.

Clyburn and Hoyer were the only two Democrats to speak during Tuesday’s debate. Several Republicans spoke to defend Wilson, including Minority Leader John Boehner (Ohio) and Minority Whip Eric Cantor (Va.).

GOP leaders called the resolution a sad day for the House and said it set a poor precedent.

“I think this is nothing more than a partisan stunt,— Boehner said.

[IMGCAP(1)]Clyburn objected to Boehner’s comments, saying the resolution would not have happened if Wilson had apologized as Members have in the past.

“All we’ve ever asked is that this body, this House, receive from Mr. Wilson a similar statement of contrition,— Clyburn said.

But House Republican Conference Chairman Mike Pence (Ind.) shot back, saying he found it out of bounds that the House was seeking “an apology from a man who has already apologized.—

Pence said the outburst actually helped the country by sparking a national debate on whether illegal immigrants would get health care benefits in the bill. Wilson accused Obama of lying when the president said his health care reform plans would not insure illegal immigrants.

“Last Wednesday was not a good day in the House, but today is worse. Today politics is overwhelming this institution,— Pence said.

The 240-179 vote came along largely partisan lines. Twelve Democrats voted no and five voted present; seven Republicans backed it.

The one-sentence resolution, released by Hoyer on Tuesday afternoon, said Wilson’s interruption “was a breach of decorum and degraded the proceedings of the joint session, to the discredit of the House.—

But even as Democratic leaders labored to keep the focus on House decorum, the racial subtext to the issue of the first black president being heckled by a white Republican from South Carolina boiled over with Johnson’s remarks. Johnson accused Wilson of having “winked— at a racist element, which had appeared at town hall meetings over the August recess.

“There is no question when you look at the banners and posters and some of the comments that are made there is a fringe element that feels racial hatred toward African-Americans and that vein has been opened up for public display, and I don’t think there should be many Republicans who would sanction that kind of excessive, radical, almost anarchist type of mentality,— Johnson told reporters Tuesday.

Wilson “did not help the cause of diversity and tolerance with his remarks. If I were a betting man, I would say that he instigated more racist sentiment, feeling that it’s OK. You don’t need to bury it now. … I guess we’ll probably have folks putting on white hoods and white uniforms again riding through the countryside intimidating people,— Johnson said. “That’s the logical conclusion if this kind of attitude is not rebuked and Congressman Wilson represents. … That’s why I support the resolution.—

Earlier in the day, the Rules Committee reiterated that House rules prohibit Members from attacking each other or the president personally on the floor, including calling each other liars or referring to such items as sexual misconduct.

Wilson’s wife also took to YouTube in a new campaign video to defend her husband, saying he didn’t deserve the rebuke from the House after he apologized to the White House for his outburst.

The incident has been a fundraising bonanza for Wilson and his Democratic opponent, Rob Miller, with both raising more than $1.5 million in the past week.

Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele also called the resolution a “stunning example of hypocrisy— and criticized House Democrats for failing to address ethical concerns surrounding Democratic Reps. Charlie Rangel (N.Y.) and John Murtha (Pa.) and former Rep. William Jefferson (D-La.), as well as Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) charge that the CIA had misled Congress over the use of harsh interrogation tactics.

Tory Newmyer contributed to this report.