GOP, Tea Party try to distance themselves from racial taunts

WASHINGTON — Republican Party officials and Tea Party protest organizers Sunday condemned health care demonstrators who hurled racial and homophobic slurs at black and gay lawmakers Saturday at the Capitol.

House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, appearing Sunday morning on NBC, called the actions by some protesters "reprehensible" and maintained that they were isolated incidents that shouldn't reflect on Tea Party participants as a whole. Amy Kremer, coordinator of the Tea Party Express, agreed.

"I absolutely think it's isolated," Kremer told Fox News on Sunday. "It's disgraceful and the people in this movement won't tolerate it because that's not what we're about."

The denunciations came amid more confrontations between supporters and opponents on Sunday as the House of Representatives prepared to vote on what would be the most sweeping overhaul of the nation's health care system in two generations.

Protesters of all stripes gathered at the south entrance to the Capitol, through which House members drive. On one side, those opposed to health care chanted "kill the bill." On the other side, supporters of the legislation chanted "health care now."

Crowds that assembled in support of immigration overhaul legislation added to the mix.Inside the Capitol, six Capitol Police officers subdued an unruly protester who'd managed to make to the House visitor's gallery. He was wrestled out.

"Things are colliding today," said Maria Robalino, 35, of Washington, who was carrying a purple "Catholics for Healthcare Reform" sign.

Saturday's demonstrations turned ugly when opponents of the health bill confronted members of Congress with racial slurs and homophobic taunts.

Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., a civil rights icon and a 12-term congressman, said demonstrators shouted "nigger" at him as he walked out of a House office building. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, D-Mo., a United Methodist Church minister and a former two-term mayor of Kansas City, Mo., said protesters spat at him on Saturday. Cleaver's office said the U.S. Capitol Police arrested someone in connection with the incident, but Cleaver declined to press charges.

Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., one of three openly gay members of Congress, said he endured anti-gay slurs by a group of protesters.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., condemned the incidents Saturday night.

"Members of Congress and opinion leaders ought to come to terms with their responsibility for inciting the tone and actions we saw (Saturday)," Hoyer said in a written statement. "A debate that began with false fears of forced euthanasia has ended in a truly ugly scene. It is incumbent on all of us to do better next time."

On Sunday, Lewis walked through the throngs of protesters into the Capitol holding hands with Hoyer, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other House members.

One of the Catholic demonstrators, Jason McCool of Silver Spring, Md., played the civil rights-era anthem "We Shall Overcome" on a pocket trumpet. The anthem was met with a thumbs-up by many lawmakers, including Rep. Ciro Rodriguez, D-Texas, who said he was heartened by demonstrators who favored the legislation.

"There's a lot of people out there hurting, who don't have access to care," Rodriguez said. "It was good to see them."

Frank blamed House Republicans for the incident in the House visitors' gallery.

"You have dozens of Republicans standing and applauding a guy disrupting . . . screaming," Frank said. "It's a dangerous situation and Republicans are cheering him on."

One Republican congressman, however, said the fault lay with the way the Democrats were trying to pass the health care overhaul.

"When you use totalitarian tactics, people begin to act crazy," said Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif.

As the House began debate on the legislation, the conflict stayed mostly civil, with some exceptions. Anti-health care demonstrators stuck with a dual theme: "Can you hear me now?" the anthem of the Tea Party movement, and "Don't Tread on Me," a reference to the Revolutionary War-era flag, which many protesters carried.

"I've paid more in taxes than you all have ever paid!" shouted Art Richmond at the Catholic protesters. The Virginia man who was wearing a tri-corner hat in honor of his Revolutionary War-era ancestor, Robert Morris, and said he shut down his 27-employee real-estate management business because he was tired of onerous government regulations.

Bill Yoder, 62, drove to Washington from Dublin, Ohio, to protest with his wife after he saw Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., on Fox News. Bachmann was talking about a portion of the legislation that authorizes the hiring of additional IRS agents to handle the agency's new responsibilities if the health overhaul becomes law.

Yoder, whose daughter is an obstetrician, said he thinks there's a need to fix health care. However, he said he's concerned about what he had heard about the IRS agents, and worries about the cost of health care on future generations.

"I don't think this country's the kind of place to have IRS agents make sure people are buying something they don't want," he said. "How are our kids going to pay for this program?"

Meanwhile, there continued to be angry debate over Saturday's protests, with Republicans saying they shouldn't be used to condemn the anti-health care overhaul movement.

"Let's not let a few isolated incidents get in the way of the fact that millions of Americans are scared to death," Boehner said.

Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele told NBC Sunday that the behavior of some protesters isn't a "reflection of the movement, of the Republican Party when you have idiots out there saying stupid things."

"We don't support that," Steele said. "You can have this debate without attacking."

Despite the condemnation of Saturday's incidents, some Tea Partiers insisted the slurs never happened. In e-mails to McClatchy, some Tea Party supporters accused Lewis and Cleaver of manufacturing the incidents, while others claimed that Democrats placed plants in the crowds to deliberately rile people up.

(James Rosen contributed to this article.)


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McClatchy's Planet Washington blog