WASHINGTON — A freshman Democratic congressman from Florida who said on the floor of the House of Representatives that Republicans want Americans to "die quickly" as part of their health care plan defiantly refused Wednesday to apologize to GOP lawmakers, who claim that his comments breached House rules.
Angry GOP leaders equated Tuesday night's words from Rep. Alan Grayson, D-Fla., to those of Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., whom Democrats admonished on Sept. 15 for shouting "You lie!" during President Barack Obama's Sept. 9 health care address to a joint session of Congress. Wilson refused to apologize for breaking House rules, though he did apologize to Obama in a phone call.
Grayson issued an apology on the House floor Wednesday, but not the one Republicans sought.
"I would like to apologize," he said defiantly. "I would like to apologize to the dead and their families that we haven't acted sooner to end this holocaust in America," he said. He then cited a statistic that 44,789 Americans die each year because they don't have health insurance.
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On Tuesday night, Grayson spoke on the House floor about health care and the Republicans' behavior during Obama's speech, noting that they were waving blank pieces of paper as the president spoke. He said those blank sheets proved that Republicans don't have a health care plan of their own, and that their back-up plan is "Just don't get sick."
"If you get sick, America, the Republican health care plan is this: Die quickly," Grayson said, standing next to giant placards that emphasized his words. "That's right. The Republicans want you to die quickly if you get sick."
GOP reaction was swift and fierce. House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, called Grayson's speech a pre-meditated attack — unlike Wilson's spontaneous outburst — and said that Grayson should apologize. If he won't, the House Democratic leadership should force Grayson to say he's sorry, Boehner added.
"If they do not, it will be clear that their outrage over remarks by another member two weeks ago — as I said at the time — is nothing more than a partisan stunt," Boehner said.
Nadeam Elshami, a spokesman for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said "members of Congress should focus on the issue at hand: ensuring quality, affordable and accessible health insurance for all Americans."
Republicans said they may introduce a resolution written by Rep. Tom Price, R-Ga., with language similar to the resolution that censured Wilson. It says that Grayson's behavior "was a breach of decorum and degraded the integrity and proceedings of the House." It adds that the House "disapproves of the behavior."
Unfazed, Grayson told reporters that he's not going to apologize because he didn't violate any House rules.
House rules prohibit personal attacks against members in debate, but Grayson didn't attack any specific Republican, and no Republican claimed personal offense at the time.
"We've exposed the fact that the Republicans don't want to do anything to improve health care," Grayson said. "The pressure should be on them."
Government observers say that both the Grayson and Wilson episodes reflect the rise of incivility in Congress and in the broader U.S. political culture.
"This was over the top," said Norman Ornstein, a fellow with the American Enterprise Institute, a center-right think tank. "It says nothing good about the quality of discourse. This type of comment, from either party, doesn't help."
Whether Grayson says he's sorry or is disciplined, Congress needs to tone down its rhetoric and stick to the substance of the issues at hand, or otherwise the coarse political discourse will worsen, Ornstein and other experts said.
"I think the length and the intensity of the battle over health care has ratcheted up the wording people are using and it's reduced the sense of congressional propriety," said Tobe Berkovitz, a Boston University communications professor. "What you have is a free-for-all slugfest because people see themselves up against the wall."
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