Post-Tucson civility swamped by budget warfare

Return to fiery rhetoric was ‘inevitable’

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Just three months after President Obama’s plea for civility after the mass shooting in Tucson, Ariz., it’s back to business in Washington, where some lawmakers have returned to heated policy debates, verbal haymakers and accusing one another of wanting to kill Americans.

In the fiery run-up to last week’s 11th-hour spending deal, Rep. Louise McIntosh Slaughter of New York, the ranking Democrat on the House Rules Committee, declared that the Republicans newly elected to the House came to Congress “to kill women,” and Rep. Tim Walberg, a Michigan Republican, said “Michigan’s blood” would be on Democrats’ hands if the government shut down. And then there was D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, Washington’s non-voting representative to Congress, telling a local television station that the GOP was pushing for a shutdown and said that would be “the functional equivalent of bombing innocent civilians.”

“It’s time for the District of Columbia to tell the Congress to go straight to hell,” she said.

The fiery rhetoric is a far cry from the national calls for political civility after the shooting in Tucson that left six people dead and 13 people injured, including Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, Arizona Democrat, who continues to recover after being shot in the head.

Some pundits drew a connection between the attack and the heated political rhetoric of the fall campaign season, where high unemployment, the national debt and general anxiety over the reach of government helped give birth to a tea party movement that aggressively pushed back against many of the policies of the Obama administration.

Along the way, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and other Republicans figures came under fire from Democrats and pundits for their use of imagery and rhetoric, which some read as overly violent and feared could encourage a new strain of extremism in the United States. Conservative commentators hit back, saying liberals were trying to smear Republicans and gun-toting Americans who follow the law.

In an attempt to end the finger-pointing, Mr. Obama delivered a well-received speech at the memorial service for the shooting victims, saying that tragedy should prompt reflection and debate over political civility that is “worthy of those we have lost.”

“Let’s make sure it’s not on the usual plane of politics and point scoring and pettiness that drifts away with the next news cycle,” Mr. Obama said. “The loss of these wonderful people should make every one of us strive to be better in our private lives - to be better friends and neighbors, co-workers and parents. And if, as has been discussed in recent days, their deaths help usher in more civility in our public discourse, let’s remember that it is not because a simple lack of civility caused this tragedy, but rather because only a more civil and honest public discourse can help us face up to our challenges as a nation, in a way that would make them proud.”

But the sentiment appears to have steadily eroded over the past few months in Washington, where lawmakers and the White House have fired rhetorical rockets at each other over the same spending and social issues that have divided the parties for decades.

“It was inevitable that some politicians would return to superheated rhetoric sooner or later,” said Larry J. Sabato of the University of Virginia Center for Politics. “This is a polarized era.”

The recent debates have served as a reminder of the degree of difficulty involved in winning over the public, while also reaching a consensus that agrees with most members of both parties.

Even the administration has pulled at the heartstrings of Americans, as USAID administrator Raj Shah warned lawmakers in recent testimony that thanks to cuts in international programs in the GOP’s spending proposal, an estimated 70,000 children would die across the globe from malaria, from the lack of immunizations and the shortages of skilled attendants at birth.

Stephen Hess, a Brookings Institution senior fellow who studies political etiquette, said he wasn’t surprised that political civility was gobbled up in the recent spending fight by the combination of new lawmakers, the long-standing divisions between the parties and the high stakes of a possible government shutdown.

“That did and usually does work against the concept of civility,” he said. “In other words, there are a lot of people getting very hot under the collar while they are working very hard and very long hours.”

Mr. Hess said civility could become even harder to find in the months to come, as the two parties hash out their differences over whether to raise the nation’s debt limit and 2012 spending levels, and as lawmakers get closer to the 2012 election, where Republicans hope to take over the Senate and oust Mr. Obama.

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