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The Times Online/UK

Washington Turns on Obama Heckler Joe Wilson After Healthcare 'Liar' Gibe

Nico Hines

US President Barack Obama's high-stakes health care speech drew frequent eyerolls and scoffs from his Republican critics, but sharpest was a single shouted charge: "You lie" from Republican Joe Wilson of South Carolina (C) during a joint session of the US Congress in Washington, DC. (AFP/Getty Images/Chip Somodevilla)

In a rare moment of unity in the bitter American healthcare debate, both sides of the political spectrum have turned on a Republican congressman after his extraordinary heckle of President Obama during a keynote speech last night.

Joe Wilson, of South Carolina, breached Washington etiquette by calling Mr Obama a liar as he addressed the joint houses of Congress last night.

During an impassioned speech in support of his flagship health reform plan, Mr Obama insisted that there would be no provision for illegal immigrants to receive state-sponsored medical assistance.

Mr Wilson responded to the claim by shouting "You lie!". Two words that were greeted by groans and murmurs of disapproval from across the chamber. The President paused, looked in the direction of the outspoken congressman and said calmly "that's not true".

In the hours after the interruption, there was bipartisan condemnation of Mr Wilson. Before the embarrassed congressman had issued an apology, Steny Hoyer, the House Majority Leader, said he could face formal sanctions for his remark.

John McCain, an Arizona Senator, led the Republican response by calling the behaviour "totally disrespectful". "There is no place for it in that setting, or any other, and he should apologise for it immediately," said the former presidential candidate.

In the seconds after the outburst many Republicans froze, others swivelled their heads to look at the culprit ensconced on their side of the room.

Nancy Pelosi, the House Speaker, stared at Mr Wilson from her seat behind the President. Alongside her, Joe Biden, the Vice President, shook his head while Michelle Obama pursed her lips and shook her head from side to side.

Maxine Waters, a California Democrat, said: "Everybody was stunned. It was just something that nobody had ever witnessed before. We all felt embarrassed."

Within minutes, the congressman's website had crashed, and hundreds of people had sent him messages on Twitter criticising his behaviour as unprofessional.

A spokesman for Rob Miller, a Democrat who plans to stand against Mr Wilson at the midterm election, said he had raised thousands of unexpected dollars on his website.

Late last night, Mr Wilson issued a statement of apology. "This evening I let my emotions get the best of me," he said. "While I disagree with the President's statement, my comments were inappropriate and regrettable. I extend sincere apologies to the President for this lack of civility."

A spokesman said that he then tried to call Mr Obama to apologise personally, but had to settle for a conversation with Rahm Emanuel, the White House Chief of Staff.

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