By Jim Abrams and Ben Evans, Associated Press Writers
WASHINGTON – Bitterly divided along party lines, the House formally rebuked Republican Rep. Joe Wilson Tuesday for shouting “You lie” at President Barack Obama during last week’s nationally televised speech to Congress.
The rare resolution of disapproval was pushed through by Democrats insisting that Wilson, a South Carolina lawmaker, had violated basic rules of decorum and civility in his outburst. Republicans dismissed the vote as a political “witch hunt” and a waste of precious time and taxpayers’ money.
Wilson had called the White House to apologize shortly after the incident, and he said at the time that the president “graciously accepted my apology and the issue is over.” Republicans agreed, but several Democrats pressed the issue.
The final tally late Tuesday was 240-179, generally but not entirely along party lines. It was 233 Democrats and seven Republicans voting to chastise Wilson, 167 Republicans and 12 Democrats opposing the measure and five Democrats merely voting “present.”
“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,” declared House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., who sponsored the measure with Democratic Whip James Clyburn, D-S.C.
Republicans tended to strongly disagree.
“We’re here on some witch hunt, some partisan stunt that the American people are not going to respect,” said Republican leader John Boehner of Ohio. Visitors in the gallery applauded that remark, drawing a warning from the chair.
One of the Democrats voting “present,” Barney Frank of Massachusetts, 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.”
Wilson’s “You lie” outburst came as Obama said that illegal immigrants would not be eligible for federal subsidies to purchase health insurance under his overhaul plan. Democrats have insisted that their proposals prohibit undocumented immigrants from getting assistance. Republicans say the legislation needs stronger verification requirements.
Tuesday’s short resolution said Wilson’s conduct was a “breach of decorum and degraded the proceedings of the joint session, to the discredit of the House.”
The Office of the House Historian said the resolution marked the first time in the 220-year history of the House that a member had been admonished for speaking out while the president was giving an address. A resolution of disapproval is less severe than other disciplinary action available to the House, including censure or expulsion.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi initially said she was inclined to “move on” and not take further action against Wilson, and Democrats, joined by some Republicans, told Wilson that the issue would go away if he went to the House floor to apologize.
But the five-term conservative would not.
“I think it is clear to the American people that there are far more important issues facing this nation than what we’re addressing right now,” Wilson said in a floor speech.
“This is not a partisan stunt,” said Clyburn, whose district in South Carolina adjoins Wilson’s. “I do not participate in partisan stunts, and I think every member here knows that. This is about the proper decorum that should take place on the floor of the United States House of Representatives.”
A leading member of the Congressional Black Caucus, Clyburn perceived it as a snub that Wilson held a town hall meeting on health care this summer at a school in Clyburn’s district — where Clyburn’s children attended — without telling him.
There have been suggestions that recent harsh criticism of Obama has been at least partly motivated by race. Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., current head of the Congressional Black Caucus, said that “today is about the civility and decorum of the House.” But she added that we “can’t sweep race under the rug — racism is still a factor and must be addressed.”
Rep. Candice Miller, R-Mich., one of seven Republicans speaking in Wilson’s behalf, argued that “I think what he have here today is a teachable moment, and it has nothing to do with race.”
The dispute did draw a spotlight to the issue of benefits for illegal immigrants. Senators trying to negotiate a bipartisan deal, with the endorsement of the White House, are moving to craft a compromise bill that strengthens verification requirements. That could please some Republicans but also antagonize Hispanic lawmakers sensitive to rules making it harder for people to obtain health care.
“I feel like progress has been really made in regard to citizenship verification,” Wilson said after the vote. But he added that “I truly feel like political games were played today.”
A House Rules Committee summary of guidelines for members states that while it is permissible to challenge the president on matters of policy during debate, personal attacks are off limits. House rules note that a member could refer to a presidential message as a “disgrace to the nation” but it would be impermissible to call the president a “liar,” a “hypocrite” or say he was “giving aid and comfort to the enemy.”
In 2007 Republicans unsuccessfully introduced a censure resolution against Rep. Pete Stark, D-Calif., for saying during debate that U.S. troops were being sent to Iraq “to get their heads blown off for the president’s amusement.” Stark later apologized to his colleagues.
The Wilson dispute, by capturing the attention of Republican and Democratic loyalists, has been a financial bonanza for both Wilson and his expected challenger in next year’s election, Rob Miller. Each has raised some $1.5 million in contributions since the speech last week.
After the vote, some people in Wilson’s district called the public disapproval a partisan move and said Democrats frequently called President George W. Bush names without admonishment.
An apology to the House? “He shouldn’t have to do that. The president accepted his apology,” said Tommy Silvester, 31, of Columbia, adding that Wilson voiced the frustration of many Americans.
Even Wilson supporters said the outburst was inappropriate.
“But one apology was definitely enough,” said Sean O’Connell, a 29-year-old salesman from Columbia. “You respect the office. But that’s the only person he needs to apologize to.”