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House gives rebuke over 'You lie!' Largely partisan vote reprimands Wilson

The House on Tuesday voted along largely partisan lines to admonish Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., for shouting "You lie!" at President Obama as he spoke to a joint session of Congress about health care last week.

Rep. Eric Massa, a Corning Democrat, was one of the few lawmakers to break with his party on the issue, saying the House should be focusing on "more important things" than reprimanding Wilson.

But the few Democrats who took to the floor to speak in favor of rebuking Wilson echoed the concerns of Rep. Louise M. Slaughter, D-Fairport.

"We invite the president of the United States to come, as well as foreign dignitaries, to address a joint session of Congress," Slaughter, chairwoman of the House Rules Committee, said in an interview. "It is elemental that members of the House of Representatives sitting in the audience do not scream out at the speaker while that is going on."

The House historian's office said the resolution marked the first time in the chamber's 220-year history 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 actions available to the House, including censure or expulsion.

The final vote was 240-179. Seven Republicans voted for it, and 12 Democrats opposed it, with five other Democrats voting "present."

As for Wilson -- who apologized to Obama in a phone call to White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel after the speech -- the previously obscure backbencher said he saw no reason for the resolution.

"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," he said.

The two-paragraph resolution says the House "disapproves of the behavior" that Wilson exhibited when he shouted out "You lie!" after Obama said the bill would not offer health care to illegal immigrants.

FactCheck.org, a nonpartisan group, has said Obama is right and Wilson wrong about that issue.

Wilson's outburst was "a breach of decorum and degraded the proceedings of the joint session to the discredit of the House," the resolution said.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said soon after Wilson's outburst that the House should not dwell on the matter.

But other Democrats came to favor an official sanction amid concerns from African-American lawmakers that Wilson violated House rules and disrespected the president in a way that had never happened to his white predecessors.

"This is not about partisan politics or inappropriate comments," said Rep. James Clyburn of South Carolina, the House Democratic whip and one of the House's senior African-Americans. "To the contrary, this is about the rules of this House and reprehensible conduct."

Clyburn said the resolution should be a lesson to the nation that disrespectful language is inappropriate on the House floor, and Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, agreed.

"Swift passage of this resolution represents a condemnation of this behavior and allows Congress to move on to more important matters," Higgins said.

But House Republican Leader John A. Boehner of Ohio labeled the resolution "a partisan stunt" and "a witch hunt."

Rep. Mike Pence of Indiana, the Republican conference chairman, said "the broader interest was actually served" by Wilson's outburst, since it spurred discussion of the details of the House health care bill.

Rep. Chris Lee, R-Clarence, said he saw no need for a reprimand. "He was man enough to call the president and apologize," Lee said. "And the president accepted his apology."

Tuesday's vote capped a six-day dust-up over Wilson's comments, which has led to a fundraising windfall both for the GOP lawmaker and his 2010 Democratic challenger. Wilson has raised $1.3 million since last Wednesday, while the Democrat, Iraq War veteran Rob Miller, has raised $1.5 million.

Public opinion on Wilson's outburst is not so evenly split. A CNN-Opinion Research Corp. poll this week found that 80 percent of respondents considered Wilson's behavior inappropriate, while 68 percent said the same in a separate USA Today-Gallup poll.

Despite the overwhelmingly partisan nature of the House vote, there were outliers on both sides.

Rep. Bob Inglis, R-S.C., said in a Twitter post that Wilson needed to go farther than apologizing to Obama. "He should apologize to House for rule violation," Inglis tweeted. "That would end the matter."

One of the five Democrats who voted simply "present," Rep. 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."

Massa, in a statement, said the debate over Wilson's comment was a distraction from more important issues.

"I strongly disapproved of Joe Wilson's outburst last week, but I think it's more important for us to be working on solutions rather than voicing more objections to something that happened almost a full week ago," he said.
News wire services contributed to this report.

e-mail: jzremski@buffnews.com.

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