Members Offer Differing Accounts of Prayer Breakfast Rift

Posted March 25, 2010 at 6:50pm

Updated: 10:33 p.m.

Even the Congressional Prayer Breakfast isn’t safe from the poisonous partisan atmosphere gripping the Capitol.

Democrats walked out of the breakfast Thursday morning after Republicans invited Rep. Randy Neugebauer (R-Texas), who screamed “baby killer” while Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.) was speaking Sunday night during the health care debate, to speak at the breakfast.

Rep. Charlie Wilson (D-Ohio), who is co-chairman of the bipartisan breakfast, and Rep. Heath Shuler (D-N.C.), who co-chaired the breakfast last year, ripped Rep. Todd Akin (R-Mo.) for inviting Neugebauer to speak at the breakfast.

“Your last minute invitation to Rep. Randy Neugebauer to address our group at this morning’s breakfast was not only irresponsible, but politically tone-deaf,” they wrote in a letter to Akin. “The weekly breakfast should lift us all up, rather than purposefully tear some of us down.”

But Akin said he was unaware when he invited Neugebauer to speak at the breakfast that the Texas Congressman had made the “baby killer” comment.

Akin said when Wilson told him that Neugebauer had made the comment and that some Democrats might be upset about him speaking at the breakfast, Akin offered to find another Republican to speak.

“He said ‘No, you don’t need to get someone else,'” Akin said. “I was counting on Charlie telling me whether it was a problem. I would have just asked somebody else.”

Hillary Wicai Viers, a spokeswoman for Wilson, disputed Akin’s account. She said Wilson confronted Akin on the House floor Wednesday to complain about the choice of Neugebauer, telling Akin it was a “poke in the eye” to Democrats.

The two agreed that it would be difficult to find a new speaker on such short notice, but “in no way, shape or form was Charlie Wilson giving his blessing to the choice of speaker,” she said. Wilson later called Akin Wednesday night to say that he was so disappointed that he would not be attending the prayer breakfast, even though it was going to be his last as co-chairman.

In their letter, Wilson and Shuler said the invitation “made it appear as though the leadership and regular attendees of the Prayer Breakfast condoned his recent floor actions, which were well beneath the dignity of the prestigious body we serve. Your invitation to him, particularly at a time when Mr. Neugebauer was blatantly politicizing his Sunday night outburst, severely undermined the sense of nonpartisan fellowship that Democratic and Republican leaders of the Breakfast have carefully cultivated for years. Furthermore, your personal reaction to being confronted this morning about Mr. Neugebauer’s invitation was truly beneath contempt.”

They said Akin should be “setting the example for others, not lowering yourself to the derision and name-calling that brought us to this point in the first place.”

Shuler said in an interview Thursday night that he chose to leave the prayer breakfast and other Democrats skipped the event because of Neugebauer’s presence as a speaker.

“It absolutely breaks my heart that politics has to interfere with our prayer breakfast,” Shuler said. “I think it embarrasses the institution. There’s no place for it in Congress.”

Democrats have been angry not only that Neugebauer screamed “baby killer” but that he used the outburst as a fundraiser on his campaign Web site a day later and said that he would not apologize on the House floor because what he said was accurate — that the health care bill will kill babies because of abortion.

Democrats and Republicans alternate speaking at the weekly breakfast, and this week the Republicans had their turn.

Shuler said the breakfast has been a sanctuary and a safe haven for Members where politics does not enter. “This is a place we never bring politics into,” he said, calling this week the “worst time” for Neugebauer to speak.

Akin called the letter “over the top” and said Shuler confronted him at the breakfast. “Heath wouldn’t talk to me or listen to me,” Akin said.

Shuler said that there seems to be a breakdown in the environment between the parties, fueled in part by the heavy work schedule since the beginning of the year.

“Unfortunately it’s real bad right now. … We’ve been here for days now and we’ve been going very hard since the first of the year, and at times you need to separate yourself. … Everybody needs to go home and take a deep breath.”

Akin attributed the rift, like Shuler, to the tense environment in Congress right now.

“Nerves are just getting a little frayed,” he said. And Akin said he expects the rift will be repaired.

“I think it’ll be fine. We have to cut each other a little slack. Forgive and forget is my attitude on it.”

In their letter, Shuler and Wilson added that they hope the damage to the breakfast can be repaired with the help of “the reflection that comes with the Easter Holiday.”

The weekly Congressional event was not the only prayer breakfast affected by the contentious health care aftermath. Stupak was uninvited from the annual Illinois Catholics Prayer Breakfast next month after he cut a deal with President Barack Obama for an executive order banning abortion funding, the Chicago Tribune reported earlier this week.