Business on the floor of the House was halted for 45 minutes yesterday after Rep. John N. Hostettler (R-Ind.) accused Democrats of "denigrating and demonizing Christians," prompting a furious protest from across the aisle.
The House was debating a Democratic amendment to the annual defense appropriations bill that would have required the Air Force Academy to develop a plan for preventing "coercive and abusive religious proselytizing."
Hostettler, speaking against the amendment, asserted that "the long war on Christianity in America continues today on the floor of the House of Representatives" and "continues unabated with aid and comfort to those who would eradicate any vestige of our Christian heritage being supplied by the usual suspects, the Democrats."
"Like a moth to a flame, Democrats can't help themselves when it comes to denigrating and demonizing Christians," he said.
Rep. David R. Obey (Wis.), ranking Democrat on the Appropriations Committee, protested the statement, saying: "I move that the gentleman's words be taken down."
The incident followed dust-ups between the two parties over the conduct of the war on terrorism. Over the weekend, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) called on Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) to apologize and withdraw his comments made on the Senate floor comparing U.S. soldiers' handling of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to the actions taken years ago by "Nazis and Soviets in their gulags."
House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) repeated an assertion yesterday that had drawn heavy Republican criticism, calling the war in Iraq "a grotesque mistake."
Yesterday, Hostettler had a choice: to agree to withdraw his words, or to stick by them and face a ruling from the chair that he had violated rules against disparaging another member on the floor. If the member's words are taken down, it is considered a serious offense and the lawmaker would not be able to speak for the rest of the day.
Eventually, Hostettler rose and read a sentence that had been written out for him in large block letters by a young Republican floor aide: "Mr. Chairman, I ask unanimous consent to withdraw the last sentence I spoke."
Later, the Democratic amendment was defeated, 210 to 198, and on a voice vote the Air Force was required to say how it is promoting religious tolerance before the overall appropriations bill passed, 398 to 19.
Hostettler was in the news last year when he took a registered Glock 9mm semiautomatic handgun to Louisville International Airport as he was preparing to board a flight to Washington. The congressman, who said he had forgotten he had placed the gun in the briefcase, pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor and received a suspended sentence.