By Dana Milbank
Monday, March 22, 2010
The Democrats were blamed for many horrible things — tyranny! socialism! corruption! — as they marched toward Sunday night’s passage of health-care legislation, but nobody ever accused them of making health reform look easy.
It all began 14 long months ago, when Ted Kennedy was still alive and everybody, Republicans and Democrats alike, seemed to agree that the nation’s health-care system needed change. Then came the town hall meetings, the death panels, the granny killing, the images of Nazi concentration camps, the Cornhusker Kickback, the Louisiana Purchase, Joe Wilson’s “You lie!” moment, the middle-of-the-night and Christmas Eve votes, the Massachusetts special election, the Stupak Amendment, the Slaughter Plan, the filibusters, the supermajorities, the deeming and passing.
It was one of the ugliest and strangest periods the American legislative process has ever experienced. And Sunday was no different. The day’s debate on the House floor was in its early moments when two men, one smelling strongly of alcohol, stood up in the public gallery and interrupted the debate with shouts of “Kill the bill!” and “The people said no!” As the Capitol Police led the demonstrators from the chamber, Republicans cheered — for the hecklers.
Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), who for the second day in a row had homophobic epithets hurled at him by demonstrators, called his Republican colleagues “clowns” for this display. But the circus was just beginning.
As lawmakers debated their way to a vote on the legislation, dozens of GOP lawmakers walked from the chamber, crossed the Speaker’s Lobby, stepped out onto the members-only House balcony — and proceeded to incite an unruly crowd.
Thousands of conservative “tea party” activists had massed on the south side of the Capitol, pushing to within about 50 feet of the building. Some Democrats worried aloud about the risk of violence, and police tried to keep the crowd away from the building.
But rather than calm the demonstrators, Republican congressmen whipped the masses into a frenzy. There on the House balcony, the GOP lawmakers’ legislative dissent and the tea-party protest merged into one. Some lawmakers waved handwritten signs and led the crowd in chants of “Kill the bill.” A few waved the yellow “Don’t Tread on Me” flag of the tea-party movement. Still others fired up the demonstrators with campaign-style signs mocking House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
Democrats, to show they wouldn’t be intimidated, had staged a march to the Capitol from their office buildings, covering the ground where on Saturday African American Democrats were called racial epithets and spat on by protesters. Pelosi, carrying the speaker’s gavel, linked arms with Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), who was harassed Saturday but is no stranger to abuse from his years in the civil rights movement.
Police ringed Lewis, Pelosi and other Democrats while the conservative activists formed a gantlet and shouted insults: “You communists! You socialists! You hate America!”
The tone was little better indoors. Pelosi, holding a news conference after a meeting with her Democratic caucus, was heckled by a demonstrator. Inside the House chamber, Republicans placed on Democrats’ chairs photos of the Democratic lawmakers who lost their jobs in 1994. Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) went to the well to say that “freedom dies.” Rep. Ted Poe (R-Tex.), sitting in the front row in a way that displayed the Lone Star flag on his cowboy boots, said Democrats were on “the path of government tyranny.” Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) warned of a “fiscal Frankenstein.”
After hours of procedural delays forced by the minority, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) began the final stage of the debate with an appeal to rise above the insults. “We have seen angry people at the doorstep of the Capitol,” he said.
The angry people were closer than Hoyer realized. Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) hollered on the floor about “dirty deal after dirty deal.” Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) likened the Democrats to Soviets. “Say no to totalitarianism!” he said. Somebody in the Republican seats shouted “Baby killer” at Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.), an antiabortion Democrat.
The legislators were making such a ruckus on the floor that they couldn’t hear the ruckus just outside their walls. The tea-party demonstrators chanted “Nancy! Nancy!” and held signs saying such things as “Red Queen Nancy — Joseph Stalin Was Not a Saint.”
That would have been the end of it, had Republican lawmakers not stirred things up. First Reps. Buck McKeon (Calif.), Rob Bishop (Utah) and Mike Turner (Ohio) came out waving signs saying “KILL THE BILL.” The crowd went wild. Reps. Mary Fallin (Okla.), Geoff Davis (Ky.) and Bill Posey (Fla.) held the “Don’t Tread on Me” flag, and Rep. Pete Sessions (Tex.), head of the House Republicans’ 2010 campaign committee, came out with half a dozen colleagues and more kill-the-bill signs. Rep. Jeff Miller (Fla.) dangled an American flag from the balcony.
“That’s kind of fun,” Fallin said cheerfully after a turn at riling the crowd with signs saying “No” in red letters.
Democratic Rep. Anthony Weiner (N.Y.), crashing his Republican colleagues’ mischief, went out on the balcony and waved. “I feel like Mussolini now!” he said as the crowd booed him.
The noise continued, inside and outside, late into the night. Inside the chamber, civil rights icon Lewis, brushing off the slurs that the demonstrators had sent his way, went into the well. “On this day, on this moment, in this chamber, answer the call of history!” he urged colleagues.
Outside, the demonstrators offered an answer to such appeals. They arranged themselves on the lawn to spell the word “NO.”
By the time Minority Leader John Boehner took the floor at about 10 pm, the mood on the floor was barely distinguishable from the mood on the lawn outside. “Shame on each and every one of you,” the Republican leader yelled at the Democrats, as the GOP lawmakers gave him a standing ovation. Boehner said the Democrats were a “disgrace” to Jeffersonian values.
“Hell, no, you can’t!” Boehner shouted at the Democrats.
“No, you can’t! No, you can’t!” echoed the protesters outside.
But they could. And at 10:45 p.m., after 14 months of trying, 219 Democrats finally did.