WASHINGTON - The uproar over Rep. Joe Wilson's shouting "you lie" at President Barack Obama returns to the House floor Tuesday for what could be a contentious and highly partisan debate over whether to formally criticize the South Carolina Republican.
The decision by Democratic leaders to bring a resolution of disapproval to the House floor was derided by Republicans, who said Wilson had already apologized for his remark during Obama's health care speech to a joint session of Congress last week.
But it was also met with skepticism by a senior Democrat, House Financial Services Committee Chairman Barney Frank, D-Mass., who said he would vote against it. "I think it's bad precedent to put us in charge of deciding whether people act like jerks. I don't have time to monitor everyone's civility."
Wilson apologized to the White House for his outburst, and Obama said he had accepted the apology. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi initially said she was not inclined to take the matter further, saying it was time to move on to the more pressing matter of health care.
But other Democratic leaders, including Wilson's fellow South Carolinian James Clyburn, said the egregious breach of decorum could not be ignored. Wilson in turn rejected suggestions that he go to the House floor on his own and apologize.
Wilson delivered a short speech at the opening of Tuesday's session, but did not refer to his confrontation with Obama. He spoke of the large town meetings he held over the August recess full of "honest patriots" who "want us to work together for health insurance reform but not a government takeover."
Clyburn, in an interview last week, said Wilson's outburst was "indicative of the combativeness he displays all the time when it comes to politics."
Clyburn, a leading member of the Congressional Black Caucus, perceived it as a snub that Wilson held a town hall meeting on health care this summer at a school in Clyburn's district -- where Clyburn's children attended -- without telling Clyburn.
Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele issued a statement accusing Democrats of "another stunning example of hypocrisy." He said Democrats "are wasting taxpayers' time and resources on a legislative measure to censure Congressman Joe Wilson so they don't have to talk about their exceedingly unpopular health care plan."
Steele wasn't the only one who felt it was a diversion. House Minority Leader John Boehner sided with Wilson and said he would vote against the resolution. Boehner called it "piling on," and echoed Steele's accusation that Dems were trying to "change the subject." Rep. Mike Pence, (R-Ind) called it "petty politics," adding that "the American people want less politics and more jobs."
The House has wide latitude in disciplining its members for their behavior. While not a formal reprimand or censure, the planned resolution would put the House on record as condemning Wilson's outburst.
Democrats -- particularly some black leaders who see race as a factor in how Obama was treated by Wilson and by protesters at recent town hall meetings -- say allowing Wilson's insult to stand without action would set a bad precedent.
Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., current head of the Congressional Black Caucus, said the matter of race was a larger issue. "Today is about the civility and decorum of the House."
The Office of the House Historian said the resolution, if it passes, would mark the first time in the 220-year history of the House that a member would be admonished for speaking out while the president is giving an address before a joint session of Congress.
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