WASHINGTON - In a rare action, the House rebuked one of its members yesterday for shouting "You lie" at President Obama last Wednesday, ending a weeklong standoff during which Democrats demanded a public apology that the lawmaker refused to give.
On a largely party-line vote, the House voted 240-179 to ratify a "resolution of disapproval" against Rep. Joe Wilson (R., S.C.) for interrupting Obama's speech before a joint session of Congress.
Twelve Democrats opposed the resolution against Wilson, while seven Republicans supported the disapproval motion. Five Democrats voted "present," rather than cast a yes or no vote. All area representatives voted along party lines except Rep. Joe Sestak (D., Pa.), who did not vote.
During the hour-long debate, Wilson refused to apologize, saying his phone call to White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel was sufficient and because Obama himself said the matter was closed.
"It is clear to the American people that there are far more important issues than what we are dealing with now," Wilson said. . . . [Obama] graciously accepted my apology, and this issue is over."
Wilson said Democrats had "provoked partisanship" with their health-care proposal, calling it a "government takeover" of private insurance.
His interruption of Obama came as the president said illegal immigrants would not benefit from his legislation, a point of sharp contention.
House Democrats said Wilson's call to a presidential aide was insufficient because he had violated chamber rules forbidding such language directed at colleagues or the president.
"This is about the rules of this House and reprehensible conduct," said House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn (D., S.C.), who led the effort to rebuke Wilson.
A resolution of disapproval is the softest form of punishment the House administers to its members. The Wilson resolution was just three paragraphs, concluding:
"Whereas the conduct of the Representative from South Carolina was a breach of decorum and degraded the proceedings of the joint session, to the discredit of the House: Now, therefore, be it resolved, that the House of Representatives disapproves of the behavior of the Representative from South Carolina, Mr. Wilson, during the joint session of Congress."
But the debate over Wilson has grown far beyond a simple two-word remark made by a back-bench lawmaker in the minority.
It has encapsulated the partisan tensions of the health-care debate, while also prompting black lawmakers to suggest Obama is being treated so harshly because some voters cannot accept the first black president.
In the last six days Wilson and his likely Democratic opponent in 2010, Iraq veteran Rob Miller, have each raised $1.5 million as small-dollar donations have poured into their campaigns, Democratic and Republican aides said.
Wilson posted on his campaign Web site a video of his wife, Roxanne, saying she asked her husband after Obama's speech, "Who's the nut who hollered out, 'You lie'?"
But she says, "My husband doesn't deserve the treatment he's getting from Congress." He was just reflecting the passionate views of his constituents at town halls, she says.
House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R., Ohio) said of the rebuke vote: "This is nothing more than a partisan stunt."
Some members of the Congressional Black Caucus linked Wilson's shout to the heightened rhetoric from conservative protesters, some of whom have carried signs linking Obama to Adolf Hitler.
"I guess we'll have folks putting on white hoods and robes again and riding through the countryside intimidating people," Rep. Hank Johnson (D., Ga.) told reporters.
Republicans rejected the accusation, saying Wilson's remark was a legitimate shot at the health-care legislation.
"It has nothing to do with race," Rep. Candace Miller (R., Mich.) said. "Joe Wilson is a patriotic American."
Wilson is only the second member to be punished this decade by the full House. In 2002, a near-unanimous resolution expelled James Traficant (D., Ohio) after his federal bribery and corruption conviction.
In 1997, then-Speaker Newt Gingrich (R., Ga.) was reprimanded and fined for ethical breaches.