By Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 15, 2009
House Democrats plan to formally reprimand Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) on Tuesday for his outburst last week in which he accused President Obama of lying about proposed health-care legislation.
The vote on punishment will resolve the issue in the House, but behind the incident some see a broader question: Is racism a factor in the way the president is being judged?
With two simple words -- "You lie!" -- shouted during Obama's speech to Congress, Wilson helped escalate an issue that has been on a slow burn for weeks, especially among African Americans. Many watched the rancor at last month's town hall meetings with suspicion that the intense anger among some participants -- including signs calling for Obama's death and a movement questioning his citizenship -- was fueled by the fact that a black man sits in the Oval Office.
Led by their most senior black lawmakers, House Democrats decided Monday evening to hold the vote. The decision risks escalating the partisan warfare that has erupted since Wilson's outburst.
A vote would reverse the initial sentiment voiced by the president and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) that it was time to "move on" to the debate on health-care. But the White House and Pelosi yielded to senior black Democrats, led by House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.), and other members of the leadership team, who argued that Wilson's remark was a breach of conduct that must not be tolerated.
Clyburn has said behind closed doors that many black voters saw Wilson's actions as part of the heated rhetoric from conservative activists whose protests, including one on the Capitol grounds Saturday, have included depictions of Obama as Adolf Hitler and the comic-book villain the Joker, according to those attending the meetings. It was one thing to have such remarks at town hall meetings during the summer recess but completely different during a presidential address to a joint session of Congress, Clyburn and other black Democrats argued, and Democrats needed to stand up for the nation's first black president.
Clyburn has not publicly called Wilson's remark racist, but he told reporters immediately after the speech that Obama is the only president to have been treated in such a manner.
Some black lawmakers were more direct.
Rep. David Scott (D-Ga.), who received hate mail from constituents during Congress's August break, said Wilson had just returned from the rowdy town hall forums at which the most heated accusations were leveled at Obama.
"I think he was caught up in a moment. The issue is: Would he have done that if the president were white?" Scott said, adding that few Republicans opposed the "level of rhetoric" against Obama in August. "We've got to realize racism is playing a role here. I'm hopeful that this will be a wake-up call for us to get it off the table."
Democrats emphasized that it was not just members of the Congressional Black Caucus seeking to reprimand Wilson, and that a broad cross section of Democrats supported the measure, including Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.). Hoyer had argued publicly that Wilson had to make a formal apology from the well of the House chamber or face some sanction.
But Wilson has refused to offer any apology beyond the private phone call he made Wednesday night to White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel. In a show of defiance Monday, the lawmaker was the first Republican to speak when the chamber opened for a round of brief speeches. Rather than apologizing, Wilson hailed the "patriots" who attended his August town hall forums and opposed a "government takeover" of the health-care system.
Republican leaders rejected the accusation that there was any racial tinge in Wilson's comments and instead accused Democrats of using the issue to play to their base of liberal activists, who have funneled more than $1 million in contributions to Wilson's likely opponent next year.
"Representative Wilson has apologized to the president, and the president accepted his apology," said House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio). "Last Thursday, Speaker Pelosi said that she believed it was time to move on and discuss health care. I couldn't agree more."
Senior aides in both parties expect the resolution to pass largely along party lines. The vote will officially be on what the House calls a "resolution of disapproval," the mildest form of punishment. Democrats cite rules of debate that prohibit lawmakers from "unnecessarily and unduly exciting animosity among its members or antagonism from those other branches of the government."
Republicans said Monday that they are not likely to offer an alternative resolution and that instead they want their members to focus on the content of the health-care proposal, as Wilson did in his brief remarks. But some Republicans came to Wilson's defense, accusing Obama and Pelosi of going back on their statements to move about moving beyond the controversy.
"What's it called when somebody says something they're going to do, and then they don't do it? What is that statement?" Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Tex.) asked in a floor speech.
After Obama's speech, the initial "macro view" among top Democrats was that he had finally broken through the noise of the town hall meetings and the alleged distortions of the legislation, according to one senior aide who discussed internal deliberations on the condition of anonymity. Democrats, the aide said, did not want to get distracted from the policy debate, as they had earlier in the summer after Obama's prime-time news conference on health care ended with his controversial comments that police had acted "stupidly" in deciding to arrest Henry Louis Gates Jr., a black Harvard professor, outside his home after police responded to a call about a possible intruder.
"It's time for us to talk about health care and not Mr. Wilson," Pelosi told reporters Thursday morning, echoing a similar statement from Obama, who suggested that "we all make mistakes."
But that morning several members of the black caucus stood up at a gathering of House Democrats to argue that Obama was being treated differently than any president, according to those in attendance. They argued that the image of a white Southerner calling the nation's first black president a liar on television on the House floor could not stand with a private apology.
During a series of roll-call votes Thursday, Clyburn implored his fellow South Carolinian to make a formal apology, as did Boehner and other Republican leaders, who had initially rejected Wilson's comment to Obama as inappropriate. But Wilson rejected the entreaties.
Clyburn, the highest-ranking black lawmaker in Congress, took the position in a leadership meeting Thursday afternoon that Wilson had to be punished, according to a handful of those in attendance.
Clyburn has served as a leader on racial matters. During last year's hard-fought Democratic presidential primary contest, he criticized former president Bill Clinton when he thought his comments about Obama's victory over his wife, then-Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, in the critical South Carolina primary were racially disparaging toward Obama.
Rep. Gregory W. Meeks (D-N.Y.), another black lawmaker, said the action was warranted not "because he's the first black president" but because Wilson broke the rules. But Meeks said that Wilson's charge was borne of that sentiment from the town hall anger. "You've never seen those kinds of signs and that kind of language used before," Meeks said. "You didn't see that same kind of language with past presidents."
But some Congressional Black Caucus members were hesitant to give Wilson too much attention, suggesting that a reprimand plays into the Republican hands. Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.), a past chairman of the group, said, "I don't want this to distract from what we are doing, because that's the danger."