Democrats on Monday prepared to move forward with a public rebuke of Rep. Joe Wilson, but the South Carolina Republican’s now-famous outburst is proving to be a rallying point for conservatives who say it has exposed another weakness in President Obama’s health care reform push.
The days after Mr. Wilson’s exclamation of “You lie!” during Mr. Obama’s speech have seen several of his Republican’s colleagues come to his defense on cable news shows. This past weekend, attendees proudly invoked his name at the massive “tea party” protest in Washington, and conservative interest groups are using the incident as a fundraising tool.
“This issue would never have come to light in a million years if Joe Wilson had not said what he said,” said former Rep. Tom Tancredo, a Colorado Republican and a chief critic of illegal immigration. “They’re stupid if they want to keep this on the front burner” by pursuing a resolution.
Mr. Wilson’s comments and the fierce reactions they inspired on both sides of the aisle underscore the political toxicity of mixing the illegal immigrant issue in the health care debate. The issue - along with another political brushfire over federal funding of abortions - has become a flash point in the debate.
Democrats, following Mr. Obama’s lead in his speech to a joint session of Congress last week, have sought to paint such concerns as illegitimate, citing language in the bill that expressly disavows coverage for illegals. But Republican critics say the assurances are insufficient and call for details on how any ban would be enforced.
Both Mr. Wilson - who has refused to apologize again after Mr. Obama accepted his initial mea culpa - and his opponent in next year’s midterm elections, Democrat Rob Miller, have used the controversy to rake in money.
As of Monday, Mr. Miller leads with $1.5 million raised, compared with $1.3 million for Mr. Wilson.
As early as Tuesday, House leaders could bring to the floor a resolution of disapproval aimed at Mr. Wilson, though the timing is uncertain, said a House Democratic leadership aide who described the issue as one of conduct, not speech.
“Congressman Wilson’s outburst during the joint session was a breach of decorum and brought discredit to the House,” the aide said. “It is common for members to address such breaches themselves rather than force action by the full House. Failure to respond would mean consent for that kind of conduct.”
Mr. Wilson’s critics cite his conduct as evidence of a deteriorating political climate and some are trying to use it to argue that the Republican Party more broadly is anti-immigrant. On Tuesday, a group of religious leaders is holding a prayer vigil calling for an end to what they describe as “hateful rhetoric.”
Mr. Wilson has declared that his apology from Wednesday night is enough; he said over the weekend that Congress should move on.
On Monday, House Minority Leader John A. Boehner said he plans to vote “no” on the resolution, noting that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi initially had signaled she, too, wanted to put the incident in the past.
“Last Thursday, Speaker Pelosi said that she believed it was time to move on and discuss health care,” the Ohio Republican said. “Instead of pursuing this type of petty partisanship, we should be working together to lower costs and expand access to affordable, high-quality health coverage on behalf of the American people.”
Rep. Steve King, Iowa Republican, has been circulating an e-mail soliciting support from Republican House members for Mr. Wilson.
“We all know Joe for the officer and gentleman that he is,” Mr. King’s letter said. “I have penned a letter to him that urges him to stand his ground.”