The people sat obediently, soberly, about 300 of them, tourists in shorts and flip-flops and little kids who drowsed, and bands of earnest interns in suits. They gazed down at what looked like a big cocktail reception without the cocktails. The members clapped one another on the back, laughed hard, kissed each other, and wandered about. It was all quite festive.
“What are they doing?” a boy whispered to his mother.
“They seem to be voting,” his mother whispered back. “I mean, I see those numbers up there,” she said, in a reference to the electronic roll call projected onto four fabric-covered panels above the press gallery, “but I can’t figure out how they are getting there. They’re just walking around and talking.”
George and Joan Baker had settled into seats in the gallery about 3 p.m. and tried to pick up on what was going on. They saw in the well a woman in a light gray suit, banging her gavel to no avail. In front of her was a bald man who spoke into a microphone from time to time, but the Bakers, visiting from Pawleys Island, S.C., couldn’t make out what he was saying over the din from the members of Congress.
“I assume they can hear each other better,” Joan said, after the spectacle had ended and they were leaving the gallery. “If they listen to each other,” her husband said.
Their daughter Joanna, a second-grade teacher on Long Island, was fixated on how unruly the scene was.
“It was this party atmosphere,” she said, “and all I could think was, ‘these people have been here too long.’ We were watching them in the natural habitat. It’s like the zoo.
“But there’s a lot riding on their decisions for us little Americans.”
The Bakers are Republicans. They don’t like the health-care law. They support their party. But they also support term limits — and they count themselves among the nearly 80 percent of Americans who disapprove of the job that Congress is doing.
“I am frustrated by both sides,” George Baker said. “They don’t compromise. I wish they were more responsive to the requests of the people they represent.”
Which was a sentiment that another gentleman from South Carolina had expressed far less diplomatically earlier Wednesday afternoon.
“The American people want us to stop jerking them around,” said Rep. James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.), the third-ranking Democrat in the House, during a debate before the vote.
It doesn’t seem like that is going to happen anytime soon, said Steve Webb, visiting from Lakeland, Fla., with his two children, given that the vote was the 33rd time the Republicans have voted to repeal all or part of the act. Five Democrats joined them Wednesday. The votes are heavy on symbolism and light on effectiveness. Democrats control the Senate and have no intention of matching the House action, and the White House has promised a veto just in case such an action reaches the president’s desk.
“I haven’t heard anything today that I haven’t heard for the last year on C-Span,” Webb said. “I guess it’s fine for them to say, ‘Yeah, we really really mean it now, after the Supreme Court upheld the law.’ But as a partisan Democrat, well, it’s kind of insane.”
Sharon Schwille, a professor of education who lives in East Lansing, Mich., had come to the Capitol on the day she had to herself before babysitting her grandchildren in Virginia. She walked out an unhappy grandmother, after listening to Rep. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) take to the floor to talk about how the act would eliminate funds for Medicaid.
“I’m in support of the act, and hearing that Republican congressman talk about his 92-year-old grandfather?” She clapped her hand to her head in frustration. “Like he’s not going to get any care? I’m tired of those exaggerations and lies. You guys lost this! It’s over now! It gets me very angry.”
When the vote had ended, and the woman in the well, who was Rep. Jo Ann Emerson (R-Mo.), announced that the repeal had been successful, one man in the gallery lightly clapped one hand on his thigh, but not enough to earn a rebuke from the staffers from the Sergeant of Arms office.
The people sat quietly.
The Republicans did not clap. They saved that for the next piece of business, an announcement that their side had won during an annual golf outing at Columbia Country Club, earning bragging rights and possession of the silver Congressional Challenge Cup.