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Reaction to Obama’s speech a glimpse into political divide

Lawmakers say outburst marks low in civility of political discourse


The Associated Press

President Barack Obama addresses a joint session of Congress Wednesday evening to discuss health care.

Updated Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2009 | 10:12 p.m.

Outburst during Obama speech

Click to enlarge photo

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, left, stands on the floor with Senate Majority Whip Richard Durbin on the floor before President Barack Obama spoke about healthcare reform before a joint session of congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2009.

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Response from Harry Reid

"I applaud President Obama for laying out a clear and concise vision of what health insurance reform will mean for America: stability and security for those who have insurance today and affordable coverage for those who don't.

"The President's outline will be helpful as the Senate spends the next several weeks crafting and passing legislation that preserves patients' choice, lowers costs and improves the quality of care.

"Now that the President has spoken, those who have opposed reform have a choice to make. They can continue to spread falsehoods about reform as they defend the status quo or they can step up to the plate and offer genuine ideas to strengthen the proposals before Congress.

"We all know that the cost of inaction is too great and that doing nothing is simply not an option. As the President said tonight, 'Now is the season for action.' It's time for both sides of the aisle to come together for common sense reform that relieves the burden of skyrocketing costs that are breaking the backs of American families."

WASHINGTON -- A presidential speech to a joint session of Congress is often a raucous affair – with cheers, hollers, boos and hisses depending on the partisan mood. But shouting “You lie!” in the middle of President Barack Obama’s speech Wednesday night broke new ground.

It’s one thing to call the president the l-word, as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid did after President George W. Bush approved Yucca Mountain.

It’s another to heckle the president in the House chamber during a rare joint session of Congress.

“I’ve never seen it so ugly before,” said Rep. Shelley Berkley, the six-term Las Vegas Democrat. “Yelling out in the middle of a speech, a presidential address to Congress, is demeaning to the office.”

The outburst punctuated the gaping divide over the health care debate. The split could be seen Wednesday night in overtly stark terms, as Democrats leapt to their feet to applaud Obama while Republicans often sat sternly silent.

When Obama said he was not the first president to take up health care reform, “but I am determined to be the last” Democrats cheered. Republicans did not stir.

Obama drew hisses from the Republican side of the aisle when he called out the “scare tactics” being made by opponents of health care reform. Democrats alone jumped to their feet as he said, “The time for bickering is over.”

When the president acknowledged “there remain some significant details to be ironed out,” Republicans laughed out loud.

Chuckles and boos and hisses are fair game at speeches like this.

But when South Carolina Republican Rep. Joe Wilson pointed his finger and shouted “You lie!” it drew gasps.

The outburst came over the hot-button issue of illegal immigration as Obama took issue with those he said have falsely claimed that illegal immigrants would be able to access government-backed health care.

The issue has been important in Nevada, where Republican Rep. Dean Heller offered an amendment in committee that would to require citizenship verification to prevent illegal immigrants from receiving subsidies for care.

“There are those who claim that our reform effort will insure illegal immigrants,” Obama said. “This, too, is false – the reforms I’m proposing would not apply to those who are here illegally.”

At that the South Carolina lawmaker shouted that the president was lying.

“Everybody was appalled and angered something like that would happen on the floor of the House,” said Democratic Rep. Dina Titus, who was sitting across the chamber.

The speech went on without missing a beat. More cheers and grumbles. When the president said he was open to ideas, Republicans held up their legislative paperwork.

But in what political scientists have come to call this hyper-partisan era of American politics, the tenor of the night, as has been the case with so much of the health care debate, offered another example of the divide.

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