WASHINGTON — The Democratic-controlled House on Tuesday voted to admonish Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) for heckling President Obama during his healthcare address to Congress last week, heightening partisan tensions in the Capitol.
The lawmaker's shout of "You lie!" to the president was a breach of decorum and "degraded the proceedings . . . to the discredit of the House," according to the unusual resolution chastising Wilson for his conduct inside the chamber. The largely party-line vote was 240 to 179, with five lawmakers voting "present."
Wilson, noting that he had apologized to the president, refused Tuesday to say he was sorry again. "There are far more important issues facing this nation," he told his colleagues, adding that Obama "graciously accepted my apology, and the issue is over."
But Democrats insisted Wilson should apologize to his colleagues for the outburst during Obama's joint address to Congress. Wilson accused the president of lying when he said that his healthcare overhaul would not benefit illegal immigrants.
"He made the institution look bad," said Rep. William Lacy Clay (D-Mo.). Rep. Donna Edwards (D-Md.) added: "You can't substitute a personal apology for a public offense."
However, House Republican Leader John A. Boehner of Ohio accused Democrats of engaging in a "political stunt." "We all know Joe Wilson," Boehner said. "He is a decent man."
House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn, a Democrat and Wilson's fellow South Carolinian, disagreed: "This is not about partisan politics. . . . This is about the rules of this House and reprehensible conduct."
Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) initially expressed concern that the rebuke would distract from the healthcare debate. But she yielded to lawmakers, including members of the Congressional Black Caucus, who said the outburst was a sign of disrespect for the nation's first African American president.
"He did not help the cause of diversity and tolerance with his remarks," Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.), a caucus member, told reporters. "I would say it instigated more racist sentiment. . . . I guess we'll probably have folks putting on white hoods and white uniforms again and riding through the countryside intimidating people. That's the logical conclusion if this kind of attitude is not rebuked."
A House Republican leadership aide responded to Johnson's remarks: "The debate has nothing to do with race or racism, and this sort of demagoguery is simply not helpful." The aide spoke on condition that he not be named because he was not authorized to speak.
Some Democrats were ambivalent about the rebuke.
"I think he should man up, but I'm not sure we should push him to do it," said Eleanor Holmes Norton, a Democrat who is Washington, D.C.'s delegate in Congress. "If it looks like we're trying to humiliate the guy, we play straight into [the Republicans'] hands."
Rep. Emanuel Cleaver II (D-Mo.) said he voted for the rebuke, although he expressed concern it would deepen the political divide.
Rep. Paul W. Hodes (D-N.H.), one of 12 Democrats to vote against the rebuke, said: "It's time to move on."
Seven Republicans voted for the rebuke.
Wilson has become a hero to the conservative right, raking in more than $1.5 million in campaign contributions since Obama's address Wednesday night, according to the National Republican Congressional Committee. Rob Miller, Wilson's likely Democratic challenger, has raised a similar amount in that time.
Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) sought to rally GOP colleagues to sign a letter urging Wilson to "hold your ground against those who seek partisan advantage."
In a USA Today/Gallup poll released Monday, 68% of respondents disapproved of Wilson's outburst.
On his campaign website, Wilson posted a video of his wife, Roxanne, saying that she had asked him: "Who's the nut who hollered out, 'You lie?' " But then she says her husband was reflecting the passionate views of constituents.
"My husband doesn't deserve the treatment he's getting from Congress," she says.
"Democrats don't want an apology. They want a sideshow," said Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele. "Something to shift the focus away from their government-run experiment on healthcare."
"What's most remarkable," said Donald F. Kettl, dean of the University of Maryland's School of Public Policy, "is how quickly Joe Wilson's outburst turned from the question of civility to one of tactical advantage. The instant the contributions started pouring in to his opponent, both sides dug in even deeper. They realized that polarization was good politics -- or at least good fundraising."
The White House took a hands-off approach Tuesday. Asked about the rebuke, White House Deputy Press Secretary Bill Burton said, "That's House business."