Outburst During Speech Was ‘Regrettable’
WASHINGTON - President Obama's address on health care policy has already produced a moment that veteran members of Congress called unprecedented, and one that illustrates the opposition the president faces.
Midway through the speech, as the president was defending his plan to a chamber packed with members of Congress, Rep. Joe Wilson, a South Carolina Republican, shouted, "You lie!"
Senior Republicans, including Obama's opponent in last year's election, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., quickly called for him to apologize. About 90 minutes after Obama finished, Wilson issued a statement saying he had "let my emotions get the best of me."
"My comments were inappropriate and regrettable," the statement said. "I extend sincere apologies to the president for this lack of civility."
Wilson's outburst came as Obama was decrying claims that his plan would cover illegal immigrants as false. The remark was clearly audible on the floor and the galleries above. "Heads snapped," said House Rules Committee Chairwoman Louise Slaughter, D-N.Y. "I've been here a long time," added the New York Democrat, a 23-year House veteran. "I've never heard anyone accost a president like that."
Rep. David Dreier, of California, the top-ranking Republican on the House Rules Committee, had a similar reaction. "I cringed," he said. "I think it's just unfortunate."
Wilson, in his fifth term, told a town-hall-style meeting last month that bipartisanship is key to resolving the nation's health care problems. "I give a speech every day on the floor (of Congress) about how Democrats and Republicans should be working together to reform health care," The State newspaper in South Carolina quoted Wilson as saying.
Members of both parties expressed incredulity and distress. Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind., told the Gannett Washington Bureau: "I do not appreciate" Wilson's outburst.
Sen. Patrick Leahy said colleagues sitting near him were "just shocked" by Wilson's shouted insult. "None of us had ever heard anything like it," he said.
The Vermont Democrat told reporters the outburst may end up helping Obama. "It demonstrates what he is facing," Leahy said.
Immediate reaction to the president's speech showed little shifting of partisan lines.
Jay Timmons, the executive vice president of National Association of Manufacturers, said in a statement that he remains concerned the president's plan will "increase costs and threaten economic recovery."
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., accused Obama of presenting a "false choice between a massive government takeover, or no reform at all." Dreier called the speech "strident and partisan." Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., commended the president for making the speech but added, "I have serious concerns that his proposals will not accomplish the reforms that are needed."
One of the Republicans who has been friendliest to Obama's proposals, Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine, expressed disappointment at the president's defense of the "public option," a plan to provide a government-backed insurance plan to compete with private companies. "I would have preferred that the issue were taken off the table," Snowe said. Even so, she was one of the few Republicans applauding some points in Obama's speech and said she'll continue her efforts "to produce a consensus bill."