- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 16, 2009

In an unprecedented but toothless reprimand, the House on Tuesday voted to condemn Rep. Joe Wilson, South Carolina Republican, for exclaiming, “You lie,” during President Obama’s address to Congress in a vote that highlighted how fractured debates have become on Capitol Hill.

The 240-179 vote to approve a resolution of disapproval capped a week in which Mr. Wilson refused to apologize publicly for his outburst during the Sept. 9 address, and in which he and a potential Democratic opponent raked in the campaign contributions from partisans on both sides.

Mr. Wilson - who was responding to Mr. Obama’s assertion that illegal immigrants would not be covered under the Democrats’ health care plan - has become a rallying point for conservative critics of the Democrats’ health care bill who praised him for raising the issue of verification. But Democrats said the reprimand was aimed at his conduct, not his arguments.

“This is not about partisan politics or inappropriate comments. To the contrary, this is about the rules of this House and reprehensible conduct,” said Majority Whip James E. Clyburn, South Carolina Democrat, who introduced the resolution aimed at his fellow South Carolinian.

It’s the first time the House has reprimanded a member for conduct during a president’s address to Congress.

The vote exposed a difference in strategies among Democrats. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, initially said she would prefer to move on, but Democrats later decided to make an example out of Mr. Wilson, who refused to make a formal apology on the chamber floor after the White House accepted his mea culpa.

Mrs. Pelosi did not make a floor speech but voted in favor of the resolution, which served as a unifying point for Democrats, many of whom faced similar outbursts from voters during town-hall meetings in August.

During the debate Tuesday, Mr. Wilson spoke briefly but spent most of the exchange listening quietly as his GOP colleagues defended him.

“Our economy is struggling, our families are hurting, and Congress is poised to demand an apology from a man who has already apologized,” said Rep. Mike Pence of Indiana, chairman of the Republican Conference.

The flap exacerbated an already-tense partisan atmosphere on Capitol Hill as congressional leaders strive to gain support for their health care overhaul.

Democrats said Tuesday that they had no choice but to enforce the rules of the chamber.

“None of us is happy to be here considering the resolution before us,” said Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, Maryland Democrat. “At the same time, what is at issue here is of importance to this House and to our country. And that issue is whether we are able to proceed with a degree of civility and decorum that our rules and our democracy contemplate and require.”

The resolution is an official expression of the chamber’s disapproval but contains no additional sanctions, concluding: “The House of Representatives disapproves of the behavior of the representative from South Carolina, Mr. Wilson, during the joint session of Congress held on September 9, 2009.”

Mr. Wilson and other Republicans chided Democrats for engaging in what they described as a political exercise that diverted attention from more important issues.

“The challenges our nation faces are far bigger than any one member of this House,” Mr. Wilson said.

Seven Republicans supported the resolution; 12 Democrats opposed it and five voted “present.”

Rep. Jeff Flake, an Arizona Republican who supported the measure, praised Mr. Wilson as a “good man” but said his actions violated House rules.

“Despite my suspicion that this resolution was driven as much by partisan politics as upholding precedent, I believe that it’s important to maintain the rules of decorum in the House and I supported its passage,” Mr. Flake said.

In contrast, Rep. Eric Massa, New York Democrat, sided with Republican leaders, saying the chamber should focus on other matters.

“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.

The incident has been a fundraising boon to both Mr. Wilson and Rob Miller, Mr. Wilson’s Democratic challenger in next year’s midterm election. Each man has raised more than $1.5 million in a week.

• Kara Rowland can be reached at krowland@washingtontimes.com.

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