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'You Lie!' Shout Brings Vote on Sanction

Racial Issue Simmers as Black Democrats Lead Push Against Wilson

Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.), center, shouted "You lie!" at President Obama during Wednesday's speech on health-care.
Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.), center, shouted "You lie!" at President Obama during Wednesday's speech on health-care. (By Melina Mara -- The Washington Post)
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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.

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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.


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