Democratic Rep Steve Cohen Defends Comparison of GOP Health Law Attacks to Nazi 'Lies'

Rep. Steve Cohen on Thursday stood by his remarks in which he compared Republican attacks on the health care overhaul to Nazi propaganda advanced by Joseph Goebbels.

The Tennessee Democrat, who is Jewish, said he regrets that anyone was offended and that his comments were used to "distract from the debate about health care." But in a detailed written statement, the congressman elaborated on and defended his analogy.

"Taken out of context, I can understand the confusion and concern," he said. "While I regret that anything I said has created an opportunity to distract from the debate about health care for 32 million Americans, I want to be clear that I never called Republicans Nazis. Instead, the reference I made was to the greatest propaganda master of all time."

Cohen had accused Republicans of spreading false propaganda about the health care law and tried to compare their tactics to those used by the Nazis in the lead-up to the Holocaust. "They don't like the truth so they summarily dismiss it," Cohen said. "They say it's a government takeover of health care, a big lie just like (Nazi propagandist Joseph) Goebbels."

He made the remarks to a mostly empty chamber on Tuesday night as he argued against the GOP's bill to repeal the health care law -- a bill that passed the House Wednesday.

Jewish groups swiftly criticized Cohen for making the comparison. The National Jewish Democratic Council issued a statement saying "invoking the Holocaust to make a political point is never acceptable."

The NJDC called Cohen a "leading progressive figure" and said the "vast preponderance of abusive Holocaust rhetoric" comes from the political right, but urged both sides to condemn such rhetoric no matter who uses it. "We implore Cohen and all our leaders to choose their words carefully as we move forward," the group said.

Though few were in attendance for his original speech, Cohen said in his statement that he "received no comments or responses from my colleagues on the floor at the time."

He went on to say that he would "never do anything to diminish the horror of the Nazi Holocaust as I revere and respect the history of my people."

"I regret that anyone in the Jewish Community, my Republican colleagues or anyone else was offended by the portrayal of my comments. My comments were not directed toward any group or people but at the false message and, specifically, the method by which is has been delivered," he said.

Cohen's comments nevertheless defied calls by President Obama and others to tone down the political rhetoric after the Jan. 8 mass shooting that left six dead and 13 wounded, including Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz. Giffords, who was shot in the head, is now in serious condition and is expected to be transferred to a rehab center on Friday.

Cohen made several Nazi references on the floor, though did he not devote all his remarks to the comparison.

"You say it enough, you repeat the lie, you repeat the lie, you repeat the lie, and eventually, people believe it. Like blood libel. That's the same kind of thing," Cohen said.

Blood libel is a historically and false anti-Semitic charge that Jews killed Christian children to use their blood in religious rituals. Sarah Palin drew controversy for citing the term last week to defend herself against accusations on the left that her use of violent imagery helped incite the mass shootings.

"The Germans said enough about the Jews and people believed it, and you have the Holocaust," Cohen added in his remarks. "You tell a lie over and over again."

The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) condemned Cohen's remarks.

"No matter how strong one's objections to any policy or to the tactics of political opponents, invoking the Holocaust and the Nazi effort to exterminate the Jewish people is offensive and has no place in a civil political discourse," ADL National Director Abraham H. Foxman said in a statement.

"Using the Holocaust as an analogy to express frustration or comparing false information to the anti-Semitic blood libel or to Goebbels' genocidal propaganda is inappropriate and serves only to trivialize the dangers of anti-Semitism and the unique tragedy in human history that saw the murder of 6 million Jews and millions of others," he said.

"We respect Representative Cohen's right to engage in vigorous debate about health care policy," he added. "We hope he will reconsider his offensive statement and we urge all members of Congress to reject such odious comparisons."