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From a Caning to 'You Lie': A Brief History of Outbursts in Congress

Sen. John McCain's was only the latest.
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There was the “You lie!” moment, a stunning breach of protocol during the pomp of a presidential speech to Congress. There was the microphone-busting screed by Rep. Anthony Weiner — before he got into trouble for other matters.

And there was the time a congressman caned a guy.

On Thursday, when Sen. John McCain shouted to protesters, “Get out of here, you low-life scum!”, he joined the pantheon of historic outbursts beneath the Capitol dome. Here are some of the most famous.

‘What difference, at this point, does it make?’

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton appeared in January 2013 before a Senate committee investigating the attack on the American diplomatic compound at Benghazi, Libya.

Her line about what motivated the attack became a flashpoint for Republicans and Democrats alike. And you can bet you’ll be hearing it over and over next year if she runs for president.

“Was it because of a protest, or was it because of guys out for a walk one night who decided they’d go kill some Americans? What difference, at this point, does it make?” the secretary asked. “It is our job to figure out what happened and do everything we can to prevent it from ever happening again, Senator.”

‘I WILL NOT yield to the gentleman!’

In July 2010, Rep. Anthony Weiner unleashed one of the most furious tirades in the history of Congress after Republicans used procedural tactics to stop a bill that would have provided health care for Sept. 11 first responders.

“It’s Republicans wrapping their arms around Republicans rather than doing the right thing on behalf of the heroes!” he thundered. “It is a shame. A shame!”

An entirely different kind of shame forced Weiner from Congress the following year.

‘Amazingly open’

In 2007, demonstrators from the group Code Pink were repeatedly dragged out of congressional hearings, where they were protesting the Iraq war. They also camped outside House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office.

Congressional hearing rooms are “amazingly open,” said Fred Beuttler, a former deputy historian of the House who is now an assistant professor of history at Carroll University in Wisconsin.

Buildings in the executive branch require a photo ID and an appointment. In the House and Senate, people only have to go through metal detectors, he said.

‘I’ll break you in half like a boy.’

It was right after the State of the Union address last year when the cable channel NY1 sought a response from Rep. Michael Grimm, R-N.Y. A reporter, Michael Scotto, used the opportunity to ask about allegations about shady campaign finance. It did not go well.

Grimm declined to talk about it, then said: “You ever do that to me again, I’ll throw you off this f---ing balcony.” When the reporter said it was a valid question, Grimm said: “No, no, you’re not man enough, you’re not man enough. I’ll break you in half like a boy.”

Grimm apologized for the threat, but he, too, had other problems. He resigned from Congress in December after pleading guilty to felony tax evasion.

‘You lie!’

It was perhaps the most famous outburst of the Obama years. In September 2009, President Barack Obama was giving a speech to a joint session of Congress. He was talking about health care reform and turned to immigration.

“The reforms I’m proposing would not apply to those who are here illegally,” Obama said. That was when Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., shouted, “You lie!”

Heads turned — most notably those of Vice President Joe Biden and Speaker Nancy Pelosi, seated behind Obama. Wilson said later that he “let my emotions get the best of me,” and he drew a formal rebuke from Congress.

Let’s get physical

But for congressional outbursts, one stands out as unbeatable. Which is more than we can say for Sen. Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, a Republican abolitionist.

In May 1856, he gave a speech lashing out at Sen. Andrew Butler of South Carolina for taking “the harlot slavery” as a mistress. This did not sit well with Rep. Preston Brooks, Butler’s distant cousin and fellow South Carolinian, who found Sumner on the Senate floor two days later and beat him with a gold-tipped cane.

Brooks resigned, went home and was re-elected by the people of South Carolina, who sent him replacement canes.