WASHINGTON – Democratic Rep. Pete Stark launched a shocking one-man assault on the Bush administration Thursday, interrupting floor debate before a failed attempt to override President Bush's veto of the so-called SCHIP bill to suggest that U.S. troops in Iraq are getting their heads "blown off for the president's amusement."
The vote to override the veto of the State Children's Health Insurance Program bill failed, 273-156, 14 votes shy of the number necessary.
But before the vote was taken, action on the failed measure screeched to a brief halt when Republicans asked that the 18-term congressman's remarks be "taken down," or challenged as against House rules that prohibit personal attacks on fellow lawmakers or the president.
The challenge came after Stark said: "I would just like to point out that under the Republican plan, by 2017 we probably will have killed 20,000 soldiers in Iraq, spending $200 billion."
The parliamentarian found that those remarks were not so inflammatory as to be outside the boundaries of House decorum. Rep. Ellen Tauscher, who was leading the floor debate, allowed them to stand as is in the congressional record.
While that particular sentence was found to be in order, Stark did not withhold his anger at Bush for both his veto and his leadership in the war in Iraq.
In a heated floor speech, Stark repeatedly made the charge that the president would rather use government revenues to send U.S. soldiers to war than to pay for low-income kids' health care. A longtime war critic, Stark said the president couldn't find $35 billion to expand SCHIP but at the same time had requested an extra $200 billion to pay for military operations in Iraq.
"Where are you going to get that money? Are you going to tell us lies like you're telling us today? Is that how you're going to fund the war? You don't have money to fund the war or children. But you're going to spend it to blow up innocent people if we can get enough kids to grow old, enough for you to send to Iraq to get their heads blown off for the president's amusement," Stark said.
"President Bush's statements about children's health shouldn't be taken any more seriously than his lies about the war in Iraq. The truth is that Bush just likes to blow things up in Iraq, in the United States, and in Congress. I urge my colleagues to vote to override his veto," he continued.
After that statement, Tauscher, D-Calif., gently reminded Stark that personal attacks are not permitted. But Rep. Kevin Brady, R-Texas, stood up and said the "general reminder" doesn't adequately chastise Stark.
"It is despicable to have a member of this Congress accuse the president, any president, of willfully blowing the heads, quote, 'blowing the heads off' our young men and women over in Iraq and Afghanistan," Brady said. "It is dead wrong, and it is beneath contempt as well that we will sit here silently and allow such a remark to be tolerated, accepted, if not embraced."
At the time, however, Brady did not challenge the remarks.
The fight came just before the House voted on whether to override the veto, an expected loss for Democrats who were unable — despite two weeks of cajoling lawmakers in both parties — to get any Republicans to switch their prior votes against the bill.
With 429 members of Congress at Thursday's vote — two seats are vacant as a result of members' deaths — Democrats needed 287 votes, or two-thirds of present members, to override the veto.
Democratic leaders swore in Massachusetts special election winner Niki Tsongas in order to get one more vote. Tsongas won the election on Tuesday to replace Democrat Marty Meehan.
Even after the vote was taken, the bickering continued. House Minority Leader John Boehner told reporters that Spark's outburst was merely symptomatic of Democratic knowledge of their impending loss.
"I always believe when your political opponents are committing suicide, there's no reason to murder them," Boehner, R-Ohio, said.
The Republican National Committee and Veterans For Freedom, a GOP-leaning group, also hit back at Stark.
"Pete Stark's out-of-control rant is an insult to every American, Democrat or Republican. It is one thing to disagree with the war in Iraq, but it is another to go to the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives and rave that the men and women of the United States Armed Forces are '[blowing] up innocent people.' The Democrats cannot stop playing partisan politics," said RNC Chairman Mike Duncan.
“This sort of rhetoric is simply beyond the bounds of civil discourse on the floor of the United States House of Representatives. Decency demands that Congressman Stark retract his remarks and apologize,” said Pete Hegseth, Executive Director of Vets for Freedom who condemned the comments.
Stark, however, isn't about to apologize.
"I have nothing but respect for our brave men and women in uniform and wish them the very best. But I respect neither the commander-in-chief who keeps them in harm's way nor the chickenhawks in Congress who vote to deny children health care," Stark said. "These brave men and women are in Iraq to protect our children — as should Republicans in Congress."
The 274 votes on the SCHIP bill were even less than a predicted 276 votes from a Democratic House aide on Wednesday. The total was 9 more than the original House vote of 265-159, in which 45 Republicans voted for the SCHIP bill, eight Democrats voted no and three Democrats missed the vote.
The nine-member difference suggests that Democrats were unable to get any Republicans to defect from their original vote.
The vote comes after millions were spent on ads by groups supporting Democrats, hundreds of "protests" and pro-SCHIP events.
With the veto sustained, lawmakers will have to enter into negotiations with the White House to cut a new deal with a president they have demonized for two weeks as something akin to a heartless tyrant.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said she spoke with President Bush about a potential compromise during a ceremony for the Dalai Lama.
"Every time I get a chance to talk to the president, I try to make the case for America's children," Pelosi said.
After the vote, House Minority Leader Steny Hoyer said Democrats plan to bring up new legislation in a couple weeks.
"We will not rest. We will not stop our efforts until we had 10 million children to health insurance," he said.
White House Press Secretary Dana Perino issued an olive branch after the vote, saying the administration wants to reauthorize the program that expired with the last fiscal year budget.
"We look forward to finding common ground on legislation that covers the more than 500,000 poor children who are eligible for SCHIP but have not yet been enrolled. If enrolling these children requires more than the 20 percent funding increase proposed by the president, we will work with Congress to find the necessary money," Perino said.
Bush has assigned three top advisers to try to negotiate a new deal. Leading the discussions for his administration are Mike Leavitt, the health and human services secretary; Al Hubbard, director of the National Economic Council; and Jim Nussle, the White House budget chief.
Bush has recommended a $5 billion increase, bringing total spending over five years to $30 billion — half the level called for in the bill that he vetoed. The president has said the measure that passed Congress encourages families with higher incomes to drop private coverage so that they can get their insurance paid for by the government.
FOX News' Major Garrett and Chad Pergram and The Associated Press contributed to this report.