Democrats sidestep immigration to rap Wilson over remark

Democrats will step carefully around the immigration issue when they seek to scold Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) for his finger-pointing flare-up last week.

But Republicans are expected to fight back fiercely, stomping right into the topic of whether or not President Barack Obama’s healthcare proposal would cover illegal immigrants.

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The GOP line of attack demonstrates the reason some Democrats, particularly Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), were reluctant to press the issue last week after Wilson shouted, “You lie!” at Obama during a joint session of Congress.

“That’s the risk,” said a Democratic leadership aide. “You give Republicans a forum to talk about this phony issue of immigration.”

House Republican Leader John Boehner (Ohio) announced Monday he would vote against any resolution disapproving of Wilson’s conduct, which led Democrats to charge the minority leader with flip-flopping on the matter of whether Wilson should offer an apology on the floor.

Benefits for illegal immigrants is a divisive topic for the Democratic Caucus. Members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus oppose clamping down on immigrants, but centrist members fear voting for any taxpayer dollars to go to illegals. And Republicans have used it to force those centrist Democrats from conservative districts to take difficult votes.

“They want it to go away,” a senior Democratic aide said of the Wilson issue.

Most Republicans are expected to vote against the “resolution of disapproval.” Aides said a handful of GOP “institutionalists” appalled by the outburst or vulnerable members from districts won by Obama might defect from Boehner’s position.

Wilson gave a one-minute speech on the floor Monday afternoon, but did not directly mention the Wednesday night outburst or immigration. He talked about the town halls he held in his district during the August break, which were part of his explanation in an interview Sunday for why he was so emotional about the topic. He said he had a “town hall moment.”

In the interview, on “Fox News Sunday,” Wilson said he would not apologize on the floor of the House. Democratic leaders say if he doesn’t, they will introduce and call a vote on a resolution of disapproval condemning his conduct.

Last week, Pelosi at first said she wanted to move on and get the focus back on healthcare, but House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.) and other leaders prevailed on her that Wilson’s behavior had to be addressed or a precedent would be set for incivility.

The “resolution of disapproval,” which could be introduced as early as Tuesday, allows for an hour of debate, and each side gets half. It will steer away from the truth of what either Obama or Wilson said, focusing narrowly on the impropriety of berating and disparaging the president in a joint session of Congress.

“It’ll be written in a nonpartisan way and address the breach of decorum and the congressman’s conduct,” said a House Democratic leadership aide.

But each side gets half an hour to make its case on the floor.

Republicans will start by noting that Wilson has apologized privately to Obama, after being asked to do so by Republican leaders.

Then they’ll start in on the talking point that Wilson, while uncouth, was right.

Democrats say language in the House legislation specifically excludes illegal immigrants, but Republicans contend it doesn’t include sufficient verification or enforcement. Republican amendments on the issue have been voted down by Democrats, who say that the GOP provisions would exclude eligible citizens.

But Democratic senators and the Obama administration have given ground on the topic, agreeing to add “proof-of-citizenship” requirements for participating in the insurance exchanges the bill creates.

In a statement, Boehner indicated that Republicans will also use Pelosi’s reluctance to go after Wilson against her.

“Last Thursday, Speaker Pelosi said that she believed it was time to move on and discuss healthcare. I couldn’t agree more,” Boehner said. “Instead of pursuing this type of petty partisanship, we should be working together to lower costs and expand access to affordable, high-quality health coverage on behalf of the American people.”

But Democrats say Boehner, by opposing their resolution, is also flip-flopping on the question of an apology. They say he urged Wilson to apologize Thursday morning. Boehner would allow only that “he did have a conversation with Mr. Wilson,” but wouldn’t say if he asked him to apologize on the floor.

Resolutions of disapproval are a rare, though not unprecedented, way of punishing a member. They’re more commonly used to express dissatisfaction with the action of a foreign government.

“It’s rare to use for an individual member,” said Fred Beuttler of the House Historian’s Office.

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Such resolutions are not in the usual panoply of punishments for lawmakers. The House ethics committee lays out the established sanctions as expulsion, censure, reprimand, a fine or denial or limitation of any right, power, privilege or immunity of the member. But it adds to that list “any other sanction determined by the committee to be appropriate.”

Pelosi introduced a resolution disapproving then-Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Thomas (R-Calif.) in 2003 after Thomas called the U.S. Capitol Police to eject protesting Democrats from a committee room. It was tabled by the Republican majority, but then Thomas tearfully apologized.

In 2007, Boehner introduced a much harsher motion to censure Rep. Pete Stark (D-Calif.) for suggesting President George W. Bush was sending troops to Iraq to get their “heads blown off for his amusement.” Again, the motion was tabled by the Democratic majority, but Stark then apologized.

But that vote also illustrates the difficult choice that centrist Democrats could find themselves in. Five Democrats voted with Republicans against tabling the Stark measure, while eight stayed neutral, voting “present.” Nearly all were centrist Blue Dog Democrats.