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The Republican Response, Arriving a Little Early

By Dana Milbank
Thursday, September 10, 2009

As President Obama addressed a joint session of Congress on Wednesday night, the nation's rapidly deteriorating discourse hit yet another low.

It happened at 8:40 pm, just after the president vowed to lawmakers that his health-care reform proposals would not provide benefits to illegal immigrants. As millions of Americans watched from home, Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) shouted at the president from his fifth-row seat: "You lie!"

Murmurs of "ooh" filled the stunned chamber. Nancy Pelosi's chin dropped. Obama moved on to the next sentence in his speech, about how no federal money would be used to fund abortion. "Not true!" came another shout.

The national debate, already raw for years, had coarsened over the summer as town hall meetings across the country dissolved into protests about "death panels" and granny-killing. Guns were brought to Obama appearances. A pastor in Arizona said he was praying for Obama to die.

But even by that standard, there was something appalling about the display on the House floor for what was supposed to be a sacred ritual of American democracy: the nation watching while Cabinet members, lawmakers from both chambers and the diplomatic corps assembled.

Wilson was only the most flagrant. There was booing from House Republicans when the president caricatured a conservative argument by saying they would "leave individuals to buy health insurance on their own." They hissed when he protested their "scare tactics." They grumbled as they do in Britain's House of Commons when Obama spoke of the "blizzard of charges and countercharges."

When he asserted that "nothing in this plan will require you or your employer to change the coverage or the doctor you have," there was scoffing and outright laughter on the GOP side. Rep. Jeb Hensarling (Tex.) shook his head in disbelief. Several Republicans shouted "What plan?" and Rep. Louis Gohmert (Tex.) waved at Obama a handwritten poster he made on a letter-size piece of paper: "WHAT PLAN?" Gohmert then took that down and replaced it with another handmade poster that said "WHAT BILL?"

The irony was that Obama had used his speech to offer a significant concession to Republicans and to break with liberals in his own party. There was a cool silence in the chamber as the president told "my progressive friends" that the "public option" they treasure as part of health-care reform could be sacrificed in favor of other ideas.

And, in truth, there were provocations from the Democratic side. Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-N.J.), sitting on the Republican side, insisted on making a victory sign with his hand and waving it at Obama. Rep. Al Green (D-Tex.), also on the GOP side of the aisle, felt the need to pound his fist in the air and make what looked, awkwardly, like a fascist salute.

Scolding Republicans for scoring "short-term political points," Obama wasn't subtle in his effort to make his foes look cruel. The White House stocked the first lady's box at the speech with a virtual medical ward: a woman with sarcoidosis, a colon cancer patient, a recurrent cancer survivor, a double amputee, two women with breast tumors, a woman with eye problems, a man with high cholesterol, two brain tumor survivors, the son of a brain cancer victim and the fathers of children who have seizures and hemophilia.

But while the majority of both parties' lawmakers behaved as adults, the insolence by House Republicans stole the show. There was derisive laughter on that side of the chamber when Obama noted that "there remain some significant details to be ironed out." They applauded as he spoke of "all the misinformation that's been spread over the past few months." They laughed again when he said that "many Americans have grown nervous about reform."

When Obama addressed the charge that he plans "panels of bureaucrats with the power to kill off senior citizens," someone on the GOP side shouted out "shame!" The president went on: "Such a charge would be laughable if it weren't so cynical." "Read the bill!" someone shouted back. Obama mentioned those who accuse him of a government takeover of health care. "It's true," someone shouted back.

The antics continued when Obama urged opponents to "come to me with a serious set of proposals." About 20 Republican members raised copies of the GOP health-reform proposal over their heads. They raised their props again when Obama criticized those who think "it's better politics to kill this plan than improve it."

Even as Obama delivered a tribute to the late senator Ted Kennedy, Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga), a leader of House conservatives, perused his BlackBerry. Shortly before the speech ended, Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-N.C.) walked out to beat the rush.

Above all, though, was Wilson's effrontery. From the reaction in the chamber -- one Democrat could be heard calling for him to be thrown out -- Wilson knew he had stepped in it. He shrugged, then consulted his BlackBerry. He puffed out his cheeks to exhale and licked his lips.

Toward the end of Obama's speech, the text of which was handed out before the congressman's outburst, was a fitting rebuke of the sort of behavior Wilson had just exhibited. When "we can no longer even engage in a civil conversation with each other over the things that truly matter," Obama said, "we don't merely lose our capacity to solve big challenges. We lose something essential about ourselves."

As Obama spoke these words, Wilson twiddled his thumbs, then took his BlackBerry from its holster to consult it yet again. The speech ended, and, as his colleagues applauded, Wilson beat a hasty retreat.

An incensed White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel went up to GOP Reps. Roy Blunt (Mo.) and Paul Ryan (Wis.) to complain about the outburst. "No president has ever had that happen," Emanuel said. "My advice is he apologize immediately. You know my number."

Wilson did as Emanuel advised. After all that shouting, it's a wonder he wasn't too hoarse to place the call.

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