Hoyer criticizes Bachmann for denying racial epithet was hurled at Lewis

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) on Tuesday chided Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) for denying that a protester shouted a racial epithet at Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) during last month’s healthcare battle.

Lewis said protesters used the n-word as he walked to the Capitol during the weekend healthcare debate that led to the bill’s final passage. Conservative commentators and Bachmann have questioned whether the racial insults actually took place.

“I think it undermines the credibility of somebody who’s a denier. People denied a lot of things happened, bad things that happened,” Hoyer said Tuesday at a press conference. 

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“I don't think there's any doubt that what John Lewis said happened and what others saw and heard happen did, in fact, happen.  That's why I think the credibility of that assertion is questionable.”

Hoyer urged a return to civility following the emotional healthcare debate, and continued to sound warnings about overly heated rhetoric from public officials.

“There are obviously clearly differences of opinion in the country and among members of Congress and the parties, but the debate ought to be civil, it ought to be constructive and ought to be designed to educate the public, not incite the public,” Hoyer said before taking questions at his weekly meeting with reporters.

Hoyer stressed the “need for all public officials, all members of Congress from either party, to try to urge the American people and conduct ourselves in a way that provides an environment for the civility of debate.”

House Democrats in particular have felt under assault from angry anti-government activists, and were subject to a number of threats, slurs and reported physical altercations in the weeks surrounding the House passage of healthcare reform.

Hoyer, who spent the two-week recess campaigning for a number of vulnerable Democrats, noted that a “more civil environment” seems to have taken hold across the country since the healthcare bill passed.

“I found the atmosphere somewhat toned down,” he said.

At the same time, he warned his colleagues about the dangers of keeping that anger alive.

Hoyer said he was “very, very concerned and disappointed” about a reference to congressional Democrats as a “lying, thieving … bunch of commies,” which was made by talk radio host Chris Baker at a Minnesota campaign rally on Thursday for Bachmann. The appearance of Sarah Palin drew thousands to Bachmann’s campaign stop.

“I don't think that's very useful. And not only do I not think it's useful, I think it creates an atmosphere and debate that is [not] constructive and can sometimes be dangerous,” Hoyer said.