WASHINGTON — Two years after yelling out "You lie!" during President Barack Obama's nationally televised address on health care to a joint session of Congress, Rep. Joe Wilson is boasting to campaign contributors that he was right after all.
Wilson challenged Obama's claim that his health care plan, which Congress passed in March 2010, would not provide medical benefits or other health coverage to illegal immigrants. The outburst transformed him from a backbench lawmaker into a conservative folk hero and helped him raise millions in campaign donations from across the country.
Now, the Lexington, S.C., Republican is trying to leverage his famous holler in order to rake in more money.
In an Aug. 12 fundraising email titled "I Was Right," Wilson portrays himself as a victim of political enemies who've punished him for telling the truth.
"Nearly two years ago, I made national news when I voiced your outrage at the misrepresentations being perpetuated by the Obama administration," Wilson writes. "The media and Obama's liberal allies attacked me for only pointing out the truth that ObamaCare would cover illegal immigrants."
During Obama's Sept. 9, 2009 speech, when the president said, "The reforms I'm proposing would not apply to those who are here illegally," Wilson immediately shouted, "You lie!"
As the health care legislation took shape over the next six months, Obama aides cited provisions excluding undocumented workers from coverage. But Wilson and other Republican opponents of the landmark measure said then that it contained no funding or other means to enforce the ban on benefits for illegal immigrants.
In his fundraising letter, Wilson seized on Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius' Aug. 9 announcement of $28.8 million to set up 67 new community health clinics in 22 states, including Florida, California, Missouri, Kansas, Texas, North Carolina, Washington, Alaska, Idaho, Illinois and Pennsylvania.
About $8.5 million of the grants will be used to establish 25 medical clinics targeting migrant and seasonal farm workers, some of whom have historically been undocumented workers.
"The president specifically promised that ObamaCare would not cover those who are here illegally," Wilson says in his fundraising pitch. "He misled all of us."
White House aides said Wilson is mixing apples and oranges because the community health clinics don't provide health insurance. The seasonal farm workers' health clinics that Wilson refers to were authorized by the 1962 Migrant Health Act, and were updated during the next decade in the Public Health Service Act, they said.
Richard Sorian, a spokesman for Sebelius, had sharp words for Wilson.
"The Affordable Care Act does not insure undocumented immigrants, and any suggestion to the contrary continues to be simply false," Sorian said. "These types of (migrant) health centers were created by President John Kennedy in 1962 and have enjoyed bipartisan support from presidents and members of Congress."
President George W. Bush, a Republican, increased funding for community health centers from $1.34 billion in 2002 to $2.1 billion in 2008, said Ellen-Marie Whelan, an analyst at the Center for American Progress, a liberal Washington think tank.
As part of Bush's overall funding increase, spending on migrant health centers increased by $80 million during his administration.
After the 2009 address, Wilson called then-White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel and apologized for his outburst. He later issued a written apology to the public.
The House, led by then-Majority Whip Jim Clyburn of Columbia, S.C., passed a resolution rebuking Wilson six days after his yell.
Wilson sounds anything but apologetic in his recent fundraising letter.
"Only through your overwhelming support and donations last election season were we able to send a message to Washington that America is tired of the deception and we need real principled leaders who aren't afraid to tell the truth," he writes.
Wilson then asks supporters to contribute as much as $1,000 to his next campaign "to continue our fight in Washington."
The fundraising email continues the sixth-term lawmaker's success at exploiting his "you lie!" outburst for fundraising gain.
In his victorious 2010 re-election campaign against Democratic challenger Rob Miller, Wilson raised $4.74 million, most of it from outside South Carolina.
Miller also benefited from the attention, however, raising the bulk of his $3.14 million campaign war chest from beyond his home state.
The two candidates' combined $7.88 million in campaign donations made their race the most expensive in South Carolina history — and among the most well-funded in the country last year.
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