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Allen West, Debbie Wasserman Schultz feud emblematic of Washington these days

WASHINGTON — She said it was "unbelievable" he could support a plan to raise costs for Medicare recipients.

So he called her the "most vile, unprofessional, and despicable member of the U.S. House of Representatives."

It's the new model for politics in Washington: Hurl incendiary words at your rival, stir the media into a frenzy, then watch the campaign cash roll in.

The feud between South Florida Reps. Allen West and Debbie Wasserman Schultz only intensified Wednesday, a day after she criticized his position on a debt-cutting bill and he fired back with a scathing e-mail claiming Wasserman Schultz was "not a lady."

Democrats cast West, a freshman Republican and tea party hero, as an unstable hothead and issued various fundraising appeals, while Wasserman Schultz, head of the Democratic National Committee, suggested on TV that West "cracked" under the pressure of the budget deal.

West made his own fundraising appeal, saying he was the Democrats' No. 1 target and it was "no coincidence" their top advocate had attacked him.

By the end of the day, it had devolved into a question whether West had apologized, as the Huffington Post reported.

No way, West said. No way, Wasserman Schultz said.

So it went — a sideshow courtesy of Florida.

But the episode is emblematic of the tension and frustration consuming Washington as lawmakers seek ways to cut the federal debt, and a reminder of the broader partisan nastiness that has erupted in recent years over health care, spending and just about every other issue.

"This is Exhibit A of how we've lost an enormous amount of restraint in carrying on a vigorous debate," said Norm Ornstein, a longtime observer of Congress.

Every day of this muggy summer has been met with a series of shots between Democrats and Republicans as time runs down to reach a deal and avoid a government default on the debt.

There's also conflict between newly elected House Republicans, many backed by the tea party, and establishment Republicans over how deeply to slash spending and whether to raise the so-called debt ceiling.

The newcomers were responsible for pushing the "cut, cap and balance" plan that West and Wasserman Schultz clashed over in the House. It has virtually no chance of passing the Senate, and President Barack Obama has already vowed to veto if it did.

On Tuesday, freshmen Republican House members, including Rep. Steve Southerland of Panama City, boarded a bus and drove to the White House to deliver a letter (and serve up sound bites for the media) to the president demanding he submit a detailed debt plan.

West was the 30th speaker in the hours-long debate Tuesday leading up to the vote on the GOP proposal, which would sharply cut spending and require a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution.

Wasserman Schultz, by chance, was the 31st speaker. She devoted 15 seconds of her remarks to West.

"President Obama has vowed to veto this bill which ends the Medicare guarantee and incredulously, the gentleman from Florida, who represents thousands of Medicare beneficiaries as do I, is supportive of this plan that would increase the cost for Medicare beneficiaries," she said. "Unbelievable from a member from South Florida."

After learning what she said, West sent a scathing reply via e-mail.

"Look, Debbie, I understand that after I departed the House floor you directed your floor speech comments directly towards me," he wrote. "Let me make myself perfectly clear, you want a personal fight, I am happy to oblige. You are the most vile, unprofessional, and despicable member of the U.S. House of Representatives. If you have something to say to me, stop being a coward and say it to my face, otherwise, shut the heck up."

He also said she was "not a lady" and invoked a past scrape in which Wasserman Schultz participated in a rally outside West's campaign headquarters and accused him of supporting a biker magazine that carried degrading portrayals of women. West easily defeated incumbent Democrat Ron Klein, helping the GOP take control of the House.

Since coming to Washington, West — a former Army colonel who once fired a gun near an detainee's head in Iraq — has been sought out for his military expertise and strong conservative views. He's also been a magnet for controversy.

In January, West drew fire for saying that Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., the first Muslim member of Congress, "really does represent the antithesis of the principles upon which this country was established." He accused Republican leaders of not working hard enough and has repeatedly criticized the president.

Wasserman Schultz likes to dish it out, too, and her new role as head of the Democratic Party has given her a stage to criticize Republicans. She has sometimes made misleading statements.

Whether she broke House decorum by criticizing West was a matter of dispute. House rules dictate that a member should "avoid impugning the motives of another member … using offensive language or uttering words that are otherwise deemed unparliamentary."

Ornstein, the congressional expert, said he considered her comments "insensitive" because West was not in the room. But he added that West's response was "crude and over the line."

Donald Ritchie, the historian of the Senate, said, "There's been lots of strong language, but that seems rather mild by comparison."

"Things are said here very aggressively, sometimes too aggressively," said Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, a Miami Republican. But, he added, "We are fighting ideological battles, and they are serious. You're going to have very strong passions."

Partisan sniping has increasingly become the norm in Washington, where a 24-hour news cycle thrives on conflict and makes celebrities out of little-known figures, such as Alan Grayson, a combative Democrat from Orlando who used his one term in Congress to assail Republicans, including calling their plan for health care "Don't get sick" but if you do, "die quickly."

Grayson raised loads of money but lost re-election in 2010 after becoming a national target of the right.

Democrats hope the reverse applies to West. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee sent a fundraising letter to supporters denouncing West's "hate-filled screed."

"We can't let this shameful display go unanswered," read the appeal, which sought to raise $100,000. Florida Democrats also are trying to raise money.

But West is a prodigious fundraiser, taking in $1.5 million in the second quarter, and his appeal will likely be met with enthusiasm from his conservative fans, which extend far beyond Florida.

"She's an attack dog for the liberal, progressive wing of the Democratic Party — plain and simple," went his pitch. "And it's times like this that I need friends with me. Please make a donation of $25 or more at my website right now."

War of words from the U.S. House

Comments of Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Weston, during Tuesday's debate on the House GOP's plan to cut the budget and national debt.

"President Obama has
vowed to veto this bill which ends the Medicare guarantee, and incredulously, the gentleman from Florida, who represents thousands
of Medicare beneficiaries
as do I, is supportive of this plan that would increase the cost for Medicare beneficiaries. Unbelievable from a member from South Florida."

E-mail from Rep. Allen West, R-Plantation, to Wasserman Schultz and congressional leaders.

"Look, Debbie, I understand that after I departed the House floor you directed your floor speech comments directly towards me. Let me make myself perfectly clear, you want a personal fight, I am happy to oblige. You are the most vile, unprofessional, and despicable member of the U.S. House of Representatives. If you have something to say to me, stop being a coward and say it to my face, otherwise, shut the heck up."

Allen West, Debbie Wasserman Schultz feud emblematic of Washington these days 07/20/11 [Last modified: Thursday, July 21, 2011 12:44am]
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