Democrats Join War of Words

Lack of Civility Permeates House

Posted September 30, 2009 at 6:42pm

Name-calling, finger-pointing and general nastiness have become the order of the day in the House, where the tenor of debate seems to reach a new low with each passing week.

A coarsening of rhetoric that had been primarily a Republican affair earlier this year took a Democratic turn Tuesday night, when Rep. Alan Grayson (Fla.) took to the floor to denounce Republicans for crafting a health care plan in which the sick “die quickly.—

Wednesday’s back-and-forth over the hot-tempered floor remark underscored a growing problem in the House, where each party’s restless rank and file dominates over a leadership that’s unable — or unwilling — to restore civility to the chamber.

Republicans who had defended Rep. Joe Wilson’s (R-S.C.) decision not to apologize to the House for screaming “You lie!— at President Barack Obama suddenly were demanding an apology of their own, prompting Democrats to charge hypocrisy.

Meanwhile, Democrats who had brought the hammer down on Wilson appeared ready to let Grayson’s remarks stand without much more than a tsk-tsk.

Grayson went to the floor to apologize Wednesday, but not to the House or Republicans.

“I would like to apologize,— he said. “I would like to apologize to the dead.—

Citing a statistic claiming 44,789 Americans die each year because they don’t have health insurance, Grayson said “that is more than 10 times the number of Americans who died in the war in Iraq, it’s more than 10 times the number of Americans who died on 9/11. … It happens every year.—

Grayson added in another apparent dig at the GOP: “We should care about people even after they are born.—

Grayson then issued one more apology.

“I apologize to the dead and their families that we haven’t voted sooner.—

Moments earlier, Grayson defended his remarks to reporters.

“I stand by what I said. … I didn’t violate any House rules and I didn’t do anything inappropriate,— Grayson said. “We’ve exposed the fact that the Republicans don’t want to do anything to improve health care.—

He added: “The pressure should be on them.—

Grayson said that no Democrat has asked him to apologize, and he claimed none will. In fact, Grayson said later Wednesday that he’s gotten an “overwhelmingly positive reaction.—

“People are thanking me from the bottom of their hearts for saying what a lot of people have been thinking, but nobody has said.—

Grayson had spoken earlier with House leaders, including Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), but he said they did not ask him to apologize.

Democratic Caucus Chairman John Larson (Conn.) had said earlier Wednesday he would encourage Grayson to apologize, but Grayson said that was a misstatement.

A Democratic leadership aide tried to walk back Larson’s call for an apology later Wednesday.

“What Congressman Larson was basically saying is that rhetoric on both sides of the aisle has gotten overheated and it’s time to take a step back,— the aide said.

Republicans have asked Grayson to offer an apology to the House and have prepared a resolution of disapproval similar to the one Democrats offered against Wilson. The South Carolina Republican apologized to Obama’s chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, but he refused to apologize to his colleagues for the breach of decorum.

While Democratic and Republican leaders in the past seemed able to defuse some of these situations, they now have little rapport with, or trust for, each other. Democrats in particular feel that Republican leaders are captive to the right wing and unwilling to discipline rank-and-filers who get out of line.

Grayson and Democratic aides also distributed lists of Republicans who have said similar things about Democratic plans killing people.

Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite (R-Fla.) said the Democrats’ bill “essentially said to America’s seniors: drop dead.— Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) said socializing medicine would kill women: “I would hate to think that among five women, one of ‘em is going to die because we go to socialized care,— he said. And Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.) came under fire for saying the Republican plan “will not put seniors in a position of being put to death by their government.—

“There is a difference,— Grayson said. “I was telling the truth and they weren’t.— He said that people who get sick under the Republican health care plans are going to have huge medical bills, won’t get help from insurance companies and will ultimately have to “pull the plug.—

“I don’t think the Democrats need to be on defense,— he said. “I think we should be on the offense and not the defense, and that’s where I plan to stay.—

Grayson also predicted that his comments, and his decision not to apologize for them, would help his re-election chances. “People like elected officials with guts, who say what they mean,— he said.

Rules ranking member David Dreier (R-Calif.) called Grayson’s presentation Tuesday night “outrageous— but said the tenor of the floor debate often reflects the sentiment outside of the Beltway.

“This is the people’s House and for better or for worse [that] in many ways has been reflected in society,— he said.

Asked whether it was the responsibility of leadership to take the tone to a gentler level, Dreier said, “Sure, it’s no secret that we encouraged Joe Wilson to apologize and he apologized.—

But some rank-and-file Members on both sides of the aisle lamented the trend toward increasingly hostile rhetoric.

“People can raise money overnight by saying outrageous things,— Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.) said. “Substance has almost disappeared. These issues are bigger than that. There is no restraint any more.—

Rep. Bob Inglis (S.C.), one of a handful of Republicans to back the rebuke of Wilson, said the coarsening of the culture by the likes of the “Jerry Springer Show— have contributed to the problem, along with an anonymous online culture where nastiness is rewarded.

“People are getting the idea that it’s acceptable to yell at total strangers, and it seems to have found its way onto the House floor,— Inglis said, adding that leaders should put limits on behavior.

“You end up hurting your cause,— he said. “You end up losing credibility. To say there are ‘death panels’ — you’ve just checked out of the reasonable discourse on health care reform.—

Inglis said that whichever party gets a handle on the situation first will be rewarded.

“There will be a significant credibility boost for whichever party shows it can be the adults in the room,— he said.

Rep. Walter Jones Jr. (R-N.C.), who also voted for the Wilson resolution, said the tenor of the debate continued to concern him, and that for the good of the country, Members needed to learn to address each other with respect.

“The House is the people’s House — we all say that 100 times a day almost. But the things that are happening, particularly the lack of civility, particularly when the country is in so much trouble, from economics to health care, to wars overseas, we need to find out how we can get along for the good of the people,— Jones said.

Jackie Kucinich contributed to this report.