The House passed a mammoth defense spending bill Monday evening, but only after a Republican congressman was forced to take back remarks accusing Democrats of “demonizing Christians.”
The rhetorical warfare came as the House considered a proposal by Rep. David Obey, D-Wis., to put Congress on record against “coercive and abusive religious proselytizing” at the U.S. Air Force Academy.
Rep. John Hostettler, R-Ind., criticized Obey and Steve Israel, D-N.Y., who offered a similar condemnation of academy officials earlier this year on another bill.
“Like a moth to a flame, Democrats can’t help themselves when it comes to denigrating and demonizing Christians,” Hostettler said.
Democrats leapt to their feet and demanded Hostettler be censured for his remarks. After a half-hour’s worth of wrangling, Hostettler retracted his comments.
The imbroglio broke out as the House conducted an otherwise routine debate on a $409 billion spending bill to fund the Pentagon budget and provide an additional $45 billion for the war in Iraq.
The $45 billion would bring to $322 billion the amount provided for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and other U.S. anti-terror efforts around the globe since 2001.
The bill passed by a 398-19 vote after Republicans rejected Obey’s amendment by a mostly party-line vote of 210-198.
The House instead approved by voice vote a Republican plan requiring an Air Force report to Congress on the steps it was taking to promote religious tolerance.
At issue is how Congress should respond to allegations of proselytizing and favoritism for Christians at the Air Force Academy.
The Air Force is investigating numerous allegations of inappropriate actions by academy officials, including a professor who required cadets to pray before taking his test and a Protestant chaplain who warned anyone “not born again would burn in the fires of hell.”
Obey said a senior chaplain at the academy was transferred to Japan after criticizing what she saw as proselytizing.
Republicans said they did not want to jump to conclusions before the investigation was complete.
“We don’t prejudge that there is abusive proselytizing,” said Duncan Hunter, R-Calif.
“If you tell Christians they can’t tell others about their faith, then they can’t exercise their Christian religion,” Hostettler said later. He said proselytizing involves a forced conversion to Christianity, something that did not occur at the academy.
Democrats criticized Hostettler’s remarks, which began, “The long war on Christianity in America continues today on the floor of the United States House of Representatives.”
Obey said Hostettler’s “outburst … is perhaps the perfect example of why we need to pass the language in my amendment.”
Hostettler, a Christian and social conservative, made headlines last year when he was caught carrying a loaded handgun in a carry-on bag in the Louisville, Ky., airport. He pleaded guilty to carrying a concealed weapon and received a 60-day sentence, which he will not have to serve unless he has other criminal troubles before August 2006.
The underlying bill contains $3.3 billion less than requested by the administration for the Pentagon and shifted those funds to tightly-funded domestic accounts, a move opposed by the administration.
In a statement, the White House budget office said it would strongly oppose any further shift from the Pentagon. That statement was aimed at the Senate, which is on track to move $7 billion from defense to domestic accounts.
It is commonly assumed that whatever money is shifted from defense accounts to domestic programs will be replenished when Congress takes up another emergency spending bill for the Iraq war next year.
Obey said that at current spending rates, the $45 billion provided for Iraq will only last for about six months after the start of the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1.