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Newt Gingrich food stamp, child janitor comments spark heated House floor debate

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Is the House staying out of the GOP presidential race?

Don’t bet on it.

View Photo Gallery: A look at the former House speaker now seeking the GOP presidential nomination.

On Wednesday, the chamber’s second day back in session for 2012, Reps. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) and Dan Lungren (R-Calif.) engaged in a heated floor debate over some of Newt Gingrich’s more controversial campaign-trail remarks.

Jackson Lee argued that the former speaker’s oft-repeated refrain that President Obama is the country’s “best food stamp president” and his view that poor children lack a strong work ethic have thrown “fuel and matches and fire” onto presidential politics by injecting the issue of race into the campaign.

“Mr. Gingrich, I know you. You are better than that,” said Jackson Lee, who overlapped with Gingrich in the House from 1995 to 1999. “And if not, America is better than that.”

She went on to criticize Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) for racially-charged newsletters that were penned in his name during the 1990s.

“I am literally appalled that our presidential politics has to be grounded in racial divisiveness,” she said, adding that candidates should “get out of the dungeon” and keep race out of the campaign.

A few minutes after Jackson Lee spoke, Lungren, the chairman of the Committee on House Administration, took to the floor and defended Gingrich.

“The point that Newt Gingrich was making is that we should not revel in the fact that we have more people on food stamps than ever before,” Gingrich said.

Rather than “beating our breasts,” Lungren said, Gingrich was arguing that “we ought to be looking inward” on the issue of the number of Americans on food stamps.

“The point he made is that it is far better that we create an economic environment in which men and women, young and old, have an opportunity to experience the satisfaction of a job well done,” Lungren said. “As Newt Gingrich said, his daughter’s first job was as a janitor at their Baptist church in Georgia. And he said while that was not (the job) to which she aspired as a long-term goal, it was in fact the launching point of her job experience.”

He added that “too often, we have knocked out the lower rungs of the ladder of economic success” in a way that has led to a lack of confidence.

“That was the point that former speaker Gingrich made,” he continued. “It is a point well made. It is a point that we should contemplate. It is a point that we should recognize and place within our debate today, and to mischaracterize it as somehow having an underlying racial meaning demeans the level of debate on this floor, the level of debate in the presidential campaigns and, frankly, the reality that confronts too many of our people today.”

The exchange between Jackson Lee and Lungren marks the second time in recent months that the issues of race and the GOP presidential campaign have found their way to the House floor.

In October, Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.) moved to introduce a privileged resolution calling on Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) to apologize for not doing away with a rock bearing the controversial name of his family’s West Texas hunting camp, “Niggerhead.” The resolution was blocked by House Republicans from coming to the floor.

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