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Outrage over Rep. Joe Wilson's outburst isn't dying down

Although President Obama accepted the Republican congressman's apology for his 'You lie' remark, Democrats are calling for a public mea culpa and using the incident in fundraising appeals.

September 11, 2009|Richard Simon

WASHINGTON — The congressman who heckled President Obama during a televised address found that while the president accepted his apology Thursday, the furor over his outburst did not let up.

"I'm a big believer that we all make mistakes," Obama said in acknowledging the apology from Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.). The lawmaker's shout of "You lie!" during the president's speech on healthcare was a significant break in decorum.

"I do think that, as I said last night, we have to get to the point where we can have a conversation about big important issues that matter to the American people without vitriol, without name-calling, without the assumption of the worst of other people's motives," Obama said.

Still, House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn, a Democrat from Wilson's home state, said that he planned to push for a resolution expressing disapproval of the incident unless Wilson issued a public apology on the House floor.

And Rob Miller -- the Democratic challenger for Wilson's House seat -- had raked in 14,000-plus contributions totaling more than $500,000 since the Wednesday night outburst, according to the House Democratic Campaign Committee. The committee also has cited the shout-out in a fundraising appeal: "Calling the president of the United States a liar in front of the nation is a new low even for House Republicans."

A Wilson spokesman said that the lawmaker had "apologized to the president sincerely, and the president accepted and said let's move on and have a civil discourse. And the congressman agrees."

Wilson posted a video on his campaign website saying he let his "emotions get the best" of him during the president's speech. But he said he would "not be muzzled," and asked supporters to contribute to his "effort to defeat the proponents of government-run healthcare."

Wilson's outburst came in response to Obama's statement that a healthcare overhaul would not directly benefit illegal immigrants.

"There are also those who claim that our reform effort will insure illegal immigrants," the president said. "This too is false -- the reforms I'm proposing would not apply to those who are here illegally."

On Thursday, some people said Wilson was right in challenging Obama's statement.

"It is a real shame that the rest of Congress was not on their feet pointing out the president's lie about illegal aliens in his healthcare plans," said William Gheen of Americans for Legal Immigration, a political action committee.

The healthcare bills developed by House Democrats and by the Senate's health committee explicitly prohibit illegal immigrants from receiving federal subsidies for insurance. However, the House Republican leadership has complained that there is no provision to enforce the prohibition. GOP House leaders also complain that Democrats rejected their amendment to require applicants for subsidized healthcare to verify their legal status.

Republican leaders said the furor over Wilson had distracted them from their efforts to talk about healthcare and Obama's speech. They described their colleague's prompt apology as adequate.

"I think all of us who know Joe Wilson know that he did the right thing in apologizing to this White House," said House Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.). "I don't think anyone accepts the type of outburst and the lack of decorum in the House chamber."

(In a separate display of Republican unhappiness, Rep. John Shimkus of Illinois walked out during the president's address. His spokesman said the congressman was frustrated that Obama was not offering any new ground and left with just minutes remaining.)

Robert Oldendick, a political science professor at the University of South Carolina, on Thursday described reaction within the state to Wilson's outburst as "surprise and strong disapproval."

But whether it will hurt the lawmaker at home is uncertain.

"There are 14 months for people's memories of this to fade before the election -- although I'm sure they'll be reminded by opposition campaign ads," Oldendick said. "While the reaction here has been pretty strongly negative, I don't get the sense that Wilson will be severely damaged."

There have been many examples of the breakdown in civility on Capitol Hill over the years, including Vice President Dick Cheney directing an obscenity at a senator on the Senate floor in 2004. In 1856, Rep. Preston Brooks of South Carolina entered the Senate chamber and severely beat abolitionist Sen. Charles Sumner of Massachusetts with a cane.

Even so, the Office of the House Historian says "the rules and precedents of the House do not allow insulting language or personal attacks."

--

richard.simon@latimes.com

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