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Lawmakers' Intense Debate on Hot-Button Issues Shows No Signs of Easing

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By Joel Achenbach
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 16, 2009

The raw emotions of American politics found full-throated voice Tuesday in and around the Capitol. At any given moment, someone was expressing outrage -- or counter-outrage.

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In the House chamber, Rep. Joe Wilson argued that he should not be reprimanded for shouting "You lie!" at the president. Democrats took turns hammering the South Carolina Republican for his indecorous behavior. Republicans defended him, some calling him a patriot and saying that he has a son serving in Iraq, or argued that Democrats were wasting time that would be better spent on more important issues. On a largely party-line vote, the House passed the "resolution of disapproval," the gentlest form of punishment for members.

Meanwhile, 45 conservative radio hosts gathered at the Phoenix Park Hotel to blast lawmakers for not doing more to stop illegal immigration. In response, advocates for immigrants held a prayer vigil and denounced what they consider racist and hateful rhetoric.

All of which indicated that the searing politics of summer are showing no sign of abating and may be heading in the other direction as Congress struggles with a legislative agenda bristling with live-wire issues.

Some front-line culture warriors were just getting warmed up. At the Phoenix Park, radio and TV host Lou Dobbs took a break from his broadcast to applaud Wilson for helping the political establishment transition from constrained civility to what Dobbs calls "forthrightness."

"I think he's owed a great deal of gratitude for doing that," Dobbs said. "I applaud him."

Health-care reform remains the most pressing and complex item on Congress's docket, but even without that issue, lawmakers would find themselves with an ambitious fall calendar. They are also working on legislation that would sober up Wall Street, change the way energy is used and take a crack at ameliorating global warming.

At the close of Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid's weekly news conference, a reporter asked if he would consider separating the energy component of the far-reaching energy and climate bill from the climate component. But the Nevada Democrat made it clear that energy and climate are going to be on the back burner until at least the end of the year while the Senate handles health-care and banking reform.

Throughout the day, the "House triangle" -- the spot where lawmakers speak to the cameras, the Capitol angling away in the background -- was a scene of heavy traffic. First there was a health-care news conference at 10 a.m. with parents of disabled children. Then, at 11, the issue was same-sex marriage. At noon, the prayer vigil took place. As the vigil was breaking up, a gaggle of college kids poured into the triangle, some members of Congress and staff gathered, and a black Suburban pulled up and disgorged Education Secretary Arne Duncan.

"This is a big, big deal," Duncan said into the microphones. Everyone on hand knew he was referring to the Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act of 2009 -- "the largest investment in college education since the G.I. Bill."

But his media turnout was relatively feeble. The major news of the day Tuesday was the debate in the House over whether to pass the resolution targeting Wilson. In the chamber, lawmakers discussed whether the vote was a "partisan stunt" or the appropriate reaction to "reprehensible conduct." Outside of it, Rep. Hank Johnson, a black Democrat from Georgia, invoked the Ku Klux Klan in talking about Wilson's behavior.

Somewhere along the way, five senators tried to drum up publicity with a news conference on the "national dairy crisis." Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius testified about flu pandemics. House lawmakers held a hearing on whether humanity has a destiny in space. Toss in hearings on ambassadorial nominations, a transportation bill, a measure on funding health-care benefits for Postal Service retirees, and so on.


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