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Editorial: Over the Top

Correction Appended

The hyperpartisanship and polarization that characterizes American politics reached an ugly crescendo last weekend with multiple breaches of Congressional decorum during the final hours of the health care debate.

The worst of the incidents took place off the House floor, when demonstrators opposed to the Democratic health care bill spit on Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.) and shouted a racial epithet at Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) and a homophobic slur at Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.).

But Republican Members engaged in plenty of over-the-top behavior, as well — and while most leaders deplored the vile acts of the demonstrators, some actually condoned them.

Specifically, as Roll Call reported Sunday, Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) commented, “I don’t think it’s anything. There are a lot of places that I couldn’t walk through,” apparently referring to the gantlet of protesters who hounded Cleaver, Lewis and Frank.

And Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) said on C-SPAN, “when you use totalitarian tactics, people, you know, begin to act crazy. I think that people have every right to say what they want. If they want to smear someone, they can do it.”

It’s been a mainstay of right-wing radio talkers such as Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck to claim that the health care bill is “socialist” or worse.

Beck said Monday that, with passage of the bill, “the progressive party has stepped out of the shadows and showed Americans who they really are: ruthless, morally bankrupt, ‘ends-justify-the-means’ Saul Alinsky-ites who will do anything (even devour their own) to get what they want.”

He added that passage of the bill proved that “California hippie, Marxist, communist, socialist progressives” now dominate the Democratic Party.

It’s a free country and well-paid rabble-rousers can say what they please, of course. And we don’t excuse the left-wing rabble-rousers on cable television who accused President George W. Bush of purposely lying to get America involved in the Iraq War.

But on both sides of the political divide, this toxicity has invaded Congress and caused Members to violate ordinary rules of good conduct and, sometimes, rules of the House.

Last month, Republicans objected when Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) called their party “a wholly owned subsidiary of the insurance industry.” Faced with the demand that his words be removed form the Congressional Record, Weiner withdrew his remarks. But he then poked the GOP again with similar remarks, which also were withdrawn following another GOP objection.

Democratic leaders arguably contributed to the super-heated atmosphere by considering — then, thankfully, dropping — plans to pass the Senate health care bill by a “deeming” subterfuge.

But there was no excuse for Rep. Randy Neugebauer (R-Texas) to shout “baby killer” at Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.), for up to a dozen Republicans to cheer a gallery demonstrator who disrupted debate by shouting “kill the bill” or for someone to place pictures of Democrats defeated in 1994 on seats in the House.

Even though the health care bill has passed, the debate over it may dominate the 2010 elections. It will be emotional, for sure. But we hope Members of Congress will try to keep it within the bounds of civility.

Correction: March 26, 2010

The editorial incorrectly described a Feb. 24 incident on the House floor. Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) withdrew remarks he made about the Republican Party and the insurance industry following an objection and a request that Weiner’s comments be removed from the record.

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