WASHINGTON — Representative Joe Wilson was formally rebuked by the House on Tuesday for his outburst during President Obama’s health care address. The vote came after a Congressional clash over civility that showcased the deep partisan divisions in the House.
In a mainly party line vote of 240 to 179, the House held that by shouting “You lie” during the president’s speech Mr. Wilson, a South Carolina Republican, committed a “breach of decorum and degraded the proceedings of the joint session, to the discredit of the House.”
The resolution was the latest — and many lawmakers hoped final — development in an episode that has generated significant public attention. The outburst prompted millions of dollars in political contributions to both parties and made Mr. Wilson a hero to some and an embarrassment and symbol of Republican disrespect to the president to others.
Seven Republicans joined 233 Democrats in approving the resolution; 12 Democrats joined Mr. Wilson and 166 other Republicans in opposing it.
Leading Democrats said the resolution put on the record that the House “disapproves of the behavior of the representative from South Carolina, Mr. Wilson, during the joint session of Congress held on Sept. 9, 2009,” and was needed to protect the integrity of the House and deter such acts in the future.
“This is about the rules of this House and reprehensible conduct,” said Representative James E. Clyburn of South Carolina, the No. 3 Democrat in the House and a home-state colleague of Mr. Wilson who led the Democratic argument for the resolution.
Democrats characterized the sanction as mild and said they would not have pursued any action at all had Mr. Wilson taken the floor and apologized to his colleagues for disrupting the address.
Mr. Wilson briefly argued his own case Tuesday and refused to offer the apology demanded by House Democrats, saying that Mr. Obama had already accepted his apology and that that should have ended the matter.
“The challenges our nation faces are far bigger than any one member of this House,” said Mr. Wilson, who was comforted and encouraged by his Republican colleagues as he faced the vote against him. “It is time that we move forward and get to work for the American people.”
The three ranking members of the House Republican leadership all took the floor to criticize Democrats for conducting what Representative John A. Boehner of Ohio, the party leader, described as a witch hunt against Mr. Wilson. They accused Democrats of politicizing the incident to shift attention from their internal party struggles over health care legislation.
“Let’s get on with the business of the people,” said Representative Eric Cantor of Virginia, the No. 2 Republican.
While some lawmakers have suggested that Mr. Wilson’s outburst had a racial component, top Democrats played down that view and said they were acting strictly to uphold proper order in the House.
“I did not take a racial connotation from Mr. Wilson’s remarks,” said Representative Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland, the majority leader, who introduced the resolution. “I do believe that there are expressions throughout the country being made that are unusually harsh. I think the attacks being made on Mr. Obama are unusually vitriolic.”
The House historian’s office said no lawmaker had ever previously been held to account for behavior toward the president during an appearance on Capitol Hill — though lawmakers have been cited for personal attacks on a president during routine House debate when the chief executive was not present. House guidelines on the rules of debate say it is impermissible to refer to the president as a liar.
The vote put Republicans in the position of opposing a resolution that condemned behavior virtually all of them had agreed was improper, as has Mr. Wilson himself. Even his wife, Roxanne, conceded on a video put on his campaign Web site that after the speech she asked him, “Who’s the nut that hollered out, ‘You lie or you liar?’ ”
“I couldn’t believe that Joe would say that,” Ms. Wilson said, “but he is very passionate and he is fighting the good fight.”
She said her husband “does not deserve the treatment he is getting from Congress.”
The White House pointedly stayed out of the dispute.
“That’s House business,” said Bill Burton, a White House spokesman. “Congressman Wilson called the White House to apologize. The president accepted his apology.”
The episode has become a political bonanza for both parties as Mr. Wilson and his Democratic challenger in the 2010 election, Rob Miller, have each raised over $1 million in the aftermath, and the two parties have benefited as well.
Mr. Boehner, the Republican leader, said policing such minor activity through a resolution could set a dangerous precedent.
“There has been behavior that has gone around here far more serious than this,” Mr. Boehner said. “My goodness, we could be doing this every day of the week.”
New York Times