By Mike Soraghan, Molly K. Hooper and Jared Allen - 09/11/09 12:22 AM EDT
With just two words, Rep. Joe Wilson went from obscure South Carolina Republican to the topic of water-cooler discussions across the country and the focus of news network shows.
Hours after he shouted, “You lie!” in the middle of President Barack Obama’s address to Congress, the five-term congressman endured what had to be his most challenging day on Capitol Hill.
His House website crashed and he was the No. 1 search on Yahoo on Thursday.
His Democratic opponent raised nearly half a million dollars off his comment and his Democratic colleagues discussed censuring him.
There were some slivers of good news for Wilson: Obama accepted his apology and Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) called on Democrats to cease their calls to sanction him. He also became an overnight sensation on Twitter, nearly tripling his following.
Wilson landed an invitation on conservative Fox News commentator Sean Hannity’s show, where Wilson reiterated he shouldn’t have yelled at the president. But he added Obama’s claim that illegal immigrants not being covered in the Democrats’ heath bill was “just wrong.”
The 62-year-old lawmaker mostly kept a low profile on Capitol Hill on Thursday. Wilson had been on the list of speakers for a rally sponsored by the conservative group FreedomWorks, along with a half-dozen other Republican congressmen. But he did not address the gathering next to the Russell Senate Office Building, which is part of the Tea Party March on Washington.
He did take a minute to tell a small group of reporters that his outburst was “spontaneous,” and not at all premeditated, according to The New York Times.
Pelosi had another word for the remark: “stunning.” She noted that lawmakers can be sanctioned for calling other lawmakers liars, but she said she didn’t want to dwell on the incident.
“It’s time for us to talk about healthcare, not Joe Wilson,” said Pelosi.
“I’m on to healthcare reform. I’m not going to discuss Joe Wilson,” she said. “I think his action spoke for itself. He has apologized. He will figure out what is appropriate for him to do.”
Asked about the rest of the Republican members’ actions, such as shouting and waving their own bills in the air, Pelosi at first said she didn’t pay attention.
“I was dazzled by the president’s speech,” she said, then added, “I think it shows the bankruptcy of their ideas.”
Some Democrats offered different opinions on how the House should handle the Wilson incident.
House Democratic Caucus Chairman John Larson (Conn.) on Thursday said Wilson should apologize and that an inquiry into sanctions was under way.
“It’s clear that the members of our caucus are quite upset and quite angry,” Larson said after emerging from a Thursday morning meeting of the entire caucus. “We are also in the process of looking at what is appropriate conduct on the floor.”
Wilson’s remark on Wednesday triggered immediate looks of shock and disgust from Pelosi and Vice President Joe Biden and subsequently overshadowed the entire GOP response to the presidential address.
Wilson issued an apology on Wednesday night.
Larson said Wilson needs to apologize much more formally.
“I think minimally, everybody agrees that there ought to be an apology, and certainly a public apology on the floor of the House for that incident,” Larson said. “Minimally.”
Even that won’t be enough for other Democrats.
“We have to take some action,” said Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.). “It’s not a partisan issue. The Congress must speak.”
Lewis did not say specifically if he believed Wilson should be censured, but he made clear his firm belief that the House must act.
“You can’t have a member speak on the floor the way he did,” Lewis said. “The leadership on both sides needs to get together and decide what needs to be done.”
According to sources, Democratic Whip Jim Clyburn (S.C.) approached Wilson - a fellow South Carolinian - three times during a Thursday vote to urge him to apologize on the floor. Wilson refused.
Some Republicans are hoping they can avoid any further consequences from the incident.
“We think it was inappropriate; he apologized quickly; move on,” said a senior Republican aide.
The House Democrats’ campaign arm and liberal organizations seized on the episode as a way to rally the base and raise money.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee appeal stated, “Help us raise $100,000 in the next 48 Hours to send a message to Republicans like Congressman Joe Wilson that we will not stand for our President to be called a liar in front of the nation.”
Wilson beat Democrat Rob Miller in 2008, attracting 54 percent of the vote in a district that Obama lost with 45 percent of the vote. Miller, an Iraq war veteran, is running again for Wilson’s seat.
MoveOn.org blasted out an online petition to members that cited the Wilson outburst as a way to demand fast action on healthcare.
“We can’t afford to let right-wing extremists like Joe Wilson hold healthcare reform hostage,” said the MoveOn.org e-mail message, titled “You lie!”
Pelosi has long held a soft spot in her heart for Wilson, sources say. He has worked with Democrats on various issues related to adoption and clean water and moved eight pieces of legislation when the Democrats were in power during the 110th Congress.
In her press conference on Thursday afternoon, Pelosi noted that she could have taken action from her seat on the Speaker’s dais directly behind the president, but did not.
Democratic Rep. Artur Davis (Ala.) says he was surprised by Wilson’s comment.
Davis added that “there are about 40 guys that I could have seen doing that, but Joe’s not one of them.”
Wilson is known for ending his daily one-minute speeches on the House floor with “God bless our troops, and we will never forget September the 11th in the global war on terrorism.”