The Grim Reaper visited Capitol Hill this week.
“You lie!” may have been the rallying cry a few weeks ago.
The new catchphrase could be “You die!”
Oh, Death has cavorted about Washington in a veritable Danse Macabre for months now. Specifically around “end of life” provisions in the health care reform bills clanking around the Capitol.
Death pranced around town hall meetings as constituents posed questions about end of life issues during the August recess. It donned its cloak during a visit to Sarah Palin’s Facebook page for her post about people standing “in front of Obama’s ‘death panel.’” The Grim Reaper even toted his scythe to the cornfields of Iowa where Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) declared “we should not have a government program that determines you’re going to pull the plug on grandma.”
But this week, the angel of death specifically haunted the House of Representatives.
Late Tuesday night, long after most lawmakers abandoned the Capitol for their apartments or the bar, freshman Rep. Alan Grayson (D-FL) offered his take on the GOP approach to health care reform.
“Republicans want you to die quickly,” Grayson said. He punctuated his remarks with a giant poster board situated behind him. The sign read “The Republican Health Care Plan: Die Quickly.”
Republicans joined the battle. They plastered Grayson’s remarks on YouTube and blasted his comments to reporters.
But the GOP offensive was about more than just Alan Grayson. Republicans are still smarting from the “shout heard ‘round the world” several weeks ago.
Democrats chastised Rep. Joe Wilson (R-SC) for hollering “You lie!” at President Obama during a Joint Session of Congress. Wilson apologized to Mr. Obama and White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel. But Democrats didn’t think that was enough. After all, Wilson violated a specific rule that prohibits lawmakers from accusing the president of lying. So they admonished Wilson with a “resolution of disapproval.” But most GOPers felt the Democratic-backed sanction was an over-reach.
Republicans waited for their opportunity. And pounced when Alan Grayson came along.
Just as Democrats did with Wilson, Rep. Tom Price (R-GA) concocted a “resolution of disapproval” to condemn Grayson. Price waved it around on the floor and threatened to call up the resolution unless Grayson apologized.
Meantime, Democrats took pains to remind reporters that when it came to health care reform, the House and Senate floors were already something of a death zone. The Democrats hastily prepared charts that showed reporters the frequency the GOP invoked the specter of death on Capitol Hill.
“Last week Democrats released a health care bill which essentially said to America’s seniors ‘drop dead,” said Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite (R-FL) on the House floor in late July.
In mid-July, Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) argued that government-operated health care would “end up killing more people than it saves.”
Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-TX) predicted that one in five women “is going to die because we go to socialized care.”
By midday Wednesday, House Democratic Caucus Chairman John Larson (D-CT) said he didn’t think it was worth the effort to single out Grayson for punishment.
“If that’s the case, then we would have to have Ginny Brown (Waite), Tom Coburn, and Louie Gohmert apologize for similar things that they said,” Larson said.
Larson said he thought lawmakers from both sides of the aisle should use more temperate language in the health care debate. But he noted he “wouldn’t have used the words Mr. Grayson has.”
“I would encourage Alan to apologize,” Larson said.
No one heard much from Grayson until mid-afternoon. Most figured the contretemps was over. A passel of reporters hunted for the Congressman during a series of votes on the House floor. And that’s when Grayson stoked the embers of the night before.
First, Grayson announced that he stood by what he said Tuesday night. He also contested the context of what Larson said regarding an apology.
“He did not ask me to apologize,” Grayson tendered.
Then Grayson joined me outside the House chamber for his first TV interview since Tuesday night’s dustup. And the chill of Death returned to Capitol Hill.
“I think that the Democrats are sick and tried of being kicked around by fake arguments with death panels,” Grayson said. As a freshman Democrat representing a swing district historically held by Republicans, Grayson said he thought the GOP was targeting him for the political gallows.
“They simply attack me. Which means they’ve got nothing,” Grayson added.
After our interview, I chatted with the Congressman for a few minutes off-camera and walked with him down a corridor to the House chamber. We said goodbye and he ducked into the Speaker’s Lobby. I thought the political firestorm had passed.
Grayson then returned to the well of the House chamber where the conflagration roared the night before. And he promptly reignited the inferno.
Grayson said that “several Republicans asked me to apologize.” But he didn’t offer the apologies the GOP sought. And Death again joined Grayson on the floor.
The Congressman cited a Harvard University study which discovered that 44,000 Americans die annually because they lack health insurance. He argued that approving the Democratic-crafted health care reform bill would stem that tide of death.
“I apologize to the dead and their families that we haven’t voted sooner to end this holocaust in America,” Grayson said.
The Republicans howled.
Ken Spain, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee charged Grayson with “doubling down on his despicable remarks.”
“This is an individual who has established a pathological pattern of unstable behavior,” Spain charged.
And so it goes as Death makes its rounds on Capitol Hill. It’s often said you can’t cheat Death. And it’s likely to linger as long as lawmakers toil with this supercharged health care reform bill.
- Chad Pergram covers Congress for FOX News. He’s won an Edward R. Murrow Award and the Joan Barone Award for his reporting on Capitol Hill.
- The Speaker’s Lobby is a long, ornate hallway behind the dais in the House chamber where lawmakers, aides and journalists often confer during votes.