Republicans deny party runs risk of 'irresponsibility'

Senior House and Senate Republicans on Thursday denied that a trio of high-profile, inflammatory outbursts from their members is damaging the party or imperiling the chance for civility in the healthcare debate.

However, GOP party elders also sought to distance themselves from the incidents — Rep. Joe Wilson’s (S.C.) heckling of President Barack Obama during Wednesday night’s speech, the recent public questioning of Obama’s citizenship by Rep. Charles Boustany Jr. (La.), who delivered Wednesday night’s GOP response, and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin’s creation of the term “death panels” earlier this summer.

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Democrats on Thursday wasted no time tying the three examples together, accusing the GOP of appearing too immature to debate such an important issue.

“The ruckus at town halls may have made good theater for cable channels and the 24-hour news cycle, but that’s not where the majority of the American people is,” said one senior Democratic aide. “The majority of the American people are repulsed by the kinds of things they saw last night.”

“People want to hear about what we’re going to do to control healthcare costs,” said Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.). “Their rates are going up astronomically, and they’re getting gouged. So when this kind of stuff happens, it’s not what they really want to hear about.”

Senate GOP Whip Jon Kyl (Ariz.) and House Republican Whip Eric Cantor (Va.) both said that Wilson has publicly apologized for yelling “You lie!” at Obama, that they were unaware of Boustany’s past comments, and that Palin’s comments were unintentional. Both denied the party is running the risk of “irresponsibility,” as Obama charged on Wednesday night, but did acknowledge that tempers are near a tipping point.

“We all do need to dedicate ourselves to working in a civil manner to try and address a very important issue for the American people,” Cantor said.

Cantor said he was unaware of the so-called “silent protest” that many House Republicans practiced during Wednesday’s speech, in which members waved aloft copies of GOP bills at the president as he spoke. The House whip also said he was unaware that Boustany told a video blogger in July that “there are questions” about Obama’s citizenship, appearing to partly align himself with the so-called “birther” movement that has cast doubt on the president’s Hawaiian birthplace.

“I’m unfamiliar with any remarks that Rep. Boustany may or may not have made,” Cantor said. “He is a serious physician who is deep into healthcare policy, research and discussion, and he is a valued player in terms of this debate … I don’t see it as any definition of our party.”

Kyl called Palin’s use of the “death panel” phrase a “pejorative” term that was nothing more than a mistaken choice of words.

“Sometimes in politics you use colorful terms to short-cut a description of something,” Kyl said. “Maybe to be more accurate she shouldn’t have used a term like that. But I don’t think you can blame Sarah Palin for the president’s commentary last night, which was politically over the top, very ungracious.”

Republicans also noted that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) famously called President George W. Bush “a loser” and “a liar” at different times in recent years.

“These outbursts of incivility aren’t partisan. We should say they’re bipartisan,” said National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Cornyn (Texas). “I don’t think there’s any risk of the party being defined by those sorts of things any more than there is of the Democratic Party being defined by Sen. Reid’s comments.”

Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) was among other Republicans who said Wilson, Palin and Boustany were simply “emotional.”

“I don’t think you can blame a whole party for two or three people who got emotional,” said Hatch. “People get emotional on this very important issue. But the fact of the matter is, that’s the most important office on earth from a political standpoint, and we ought to always show respect.”