The journey to health-care reform has been long and gruesome, so it's only fitting that on the day when it would finally pass, Republican members of Congress stood on the balcony of the people's House and stirred an unruly crowd. As lawmakers debated their way to a vote on the legislation, dozens of GOP members walked from the chamber, across the Speaker's Lobby and out onto the balcony to whip up thousands of "tea party" protesters massed on the south side of the Capitol, within about 50 feet of the building.
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 and offering messages such as "Let's Meet 'em at the State Line." Some Democrats worried aloud about the risk of violence, while anxious Capitol Police struggled to keep the crowd away from the building.
It was a hideous display, capping one of the ugliest and strangest periods of the American legislative process: the town hall meetings, the death panels, the granny-killing, the images of Nazi concentration camps, the Cornhusker Kickback, the Louisiana Purchase, the "You lie!" moment, the Christmas Eve vote, the Massachusetts election, the Stupak Amendment, the Slaughter Plan, the filibusters, the supermajorities, the deeming and passing.
Fifteen months of episodic battles over health-care reform had often ended, as the finale did, with epithets and shouts.
Inside the House chamber, Republicans placed on the Democrats' chairs photos of the Democratic lawmakers who lost their seats in 1994. In the public gallery, two men, one smelling strongly of alcohol, interrupted the House debate with shouts of "Kill the bill!" and "The people said no!" As police led the demonstrators from the chamber, Republicans cheered -- for the hecklers.
Democrats, to show they wouldn't be intimidated, staged a march to the House from their office buildings, covering the ground where on Saturday African American Democrats were called racial epithets and spat on by demonstrators. Pelosi, carrying the speaker's gavel, linked arms with Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), who was harassed on Saturday and is no stranger to abuse from his years in the civil rights movement.
Police ringed Lewis, Pelosi and the other Democrats while the conservative activists formed a gantlet and shouted insults: "You communists! You socialists! You hate America!"
The tone of Sunday's debate was set within moments of the opening prayer for "hope and promise." Republicans opposed the approval of the journal -- a routine procedure at the start of each day -- and demanded a roll-call vote. Further parliamentary objections delayed the proceedings for hours.
Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) went to the well to say that "freedom dies a little bit today." 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."
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, who had been rallying on the west lawn of the Capitol, migrated to the south to be just outside the House chamber. They 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 riled things up. First Rep. Buck McKeon (Calif.) came out onto the balcony, pumping his fist in the air and holding a sign that said "KILL." After him came Rep. Rob Bishop (Utah) with a "THE" sign and Rep. Mike Turner (Ohio) with "BILL." The crowd went wild.
Next came Reps. Mary Fallin (Okla.), Geoff Davis (Ky.) and Bill Posey (Fla.) holding the "Don't Tread on Me" flag. Rep. Pete Sessions (Tex.), head of the House Republicans' 2010 campaign committee, came out with hand-lettered signs spelling K-I-L-L T-H-E B-I-L-L. Sessions, holding two L's himself, was joined on the balcony by Reps. Steve King (Iowa), Greg Walden (Ore.), Jeff Flake (Ariz.), Jeanne Schmidt (Ohio), Dan Lungren (Calif.) and many more. Rep. Jeff Miller (Fla.) dangled an American flag from the balcony and waved it back and forth.
"That's kind of fun," Fallin said cheerfully after a turn at riling the crowd with signs saying "No" in red letters.
Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), working at a table in the Speaker's Lobby, looked up at his colleagues returning from the balcony. "Are you inciting a riot?" he asked.
It did have that feel. Outside, the police shouted at demonstrators to keep off the wall separating them from the House chamber. One cop complained to another: "They were back further until the members came out."
A curious Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), taunted by demonstrators with a homophobic slur on Saturday, went out on the balcony. He was greeted by cascading boos. Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) went out and gave a mischievous wave. "I feel like Mussolini now!" he said as the crowd booed him.
But Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.), also heckled when he stepped onto the balcony, wasn't as amused. "They should be embarrassed," he said of his Republican colleagues. "They're going to be responsible for anything that happens out there."
Mercifully, there was no attempt to storm the House. Things began to quiet down as word filtered out to the crowd that Rep. Bart Stupak (Mich.), an antiabortion Democrat, had announced his support for the bill, essentially clinching its passage.
Some demonstrators, before dispersing, lined up to spell a human "no" on the Capitol lawn. It's a formation the lawmakers watching from the House balcony had been practicing for months.