RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Lawmakers did pass one resolution yesterday, the House admonished Republican Congressman Joe Wilson of South Carolina, who interrupted President Obama's speech on health care last week.
Some Democrats wanted Wilson to apologize to the House. That apology never came. And so Wilson became the first member of Congress to be formally chastised for yelling at a president during a joint session of congress. NPR's Audie Cornish reports.
AUDIE CORNISH: Wilson had already called the White House last week with an apology. He'd yelled out, you lie, when the president insisted that health care subsidies wouldn't be available to illegal immigrants under the health care overhaul bill. And at first, Democratic leaders, such as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, didn't seem too interested in going after him.
Representative NANCY PELOSI (Democrat, California, Speaker of the House): As far as I'm concerned, the episode was unfortunate, and Mr. Wilson has apologized. It's time for us to talk about health care and not Mr. Wilson.
CORNISH: House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said he didn't rush to action because he'd been assured by Republican leaders that Wilson would apologize to his fellow members. But days passed and instead of saying sorry, Wilson took to the airwaves to rally financial support, claiming he would not be muzzled by liberal critics.
Soon members of the Congressional Black Caucus were insisting the incident not be ignored. Georgia Democrat Hank Johnson argued that by disrespecting the president, Wilson was encouraging racist elements in society against Mr. Obama.
Representative HANK JOHNSON (Democrat, Georgia): That's the logical conclusion if this kind of attitude is not rebuked.
CORNISH: Meanwhile, even members who supported the move, such as District of Columbia Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, wondered aloud if Democrats weren't simply fueling the health care opposition by singling Wilson out.
Delegate ELEANOR HOLMES NORTON (Democrat, District of Columbia): A better side of judgment may be to watch out that if it looks like we are trying to humiliate the guy, we play straight into their hands. I think he should man up, but I'm not sure we should push him to do it.
CORNISH: It was a fellow South Carolinian and House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn who led the effort for a resolution rebuking Wilson. The resolution described his outburst as a breach of decorum and admonished the Republican for degrading the proceedings of a joint session.
Representative JIM CLYBURN (Democrat, South Carolina, Majority Whip): There are certain things that you do and certain things that you don't do. And when you do those things that you don't do, the proper thing is to show a proper contrition.
CORNISH: Which Clyburn said would be to come to the floor and formally apologize. Wilson wasn't interested.
Representative JOE WILSON (Republican, South Carolina): I think it is clear to the American people that there are far more important issues facing this nation than what we're addressing right now. The president said the time for games is over. I agree with the president. He graciously accepted my apology and the issue is over.
CORNISH: And at least a dozen of his GOP colleagues lined up to support him, led by Minority Leader John Boehner.
Representative JOHN BOEHNER (Republican, Ohio, Minority Leader): Never has this happened before — that we're going to bring a resolution of disapproving of his behavior. My goodness, we could be doing this every day of the week. The American people sent us here to work together to solve the problems of our country. They didn't come here to talk about our behavior. They didn't send us here to do that. What they want us to do is to deal with the issue of health care.
CORNISH: At the end of the day, the measure passed mostly along party lines, although a dozen Democrats voted against it and five simply voted present. Just seven Republicans voted for the resolution against Wilson. But don't expect the incident to fade away too soon. As a result of this episode, Wilson and his Democratic challenger in South Carolina, Rob Miller, have each seen their campaign donations jump by a-million-and-a-half dollars and counting.
Audie Cornish, NPR News, the Capitol.
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