By Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 20, 2010; 10:25 PM
Members of the Congressional Black Caucus said that racial epithets were hurled at them Saturday by angry protesters who had gathered at the Capitol to protest health-care legislation, and one congressman said he was spit upon. The most high-profile openly gay congressman, Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), was heckled with anti-gay chants.
Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.) issued a statement late Saturday saying that he was spit upon while walking to the Capitol to cast a vote, leading the Capitol Police to usher him into the building out of concern for his safety. Police detained the individual, who was then released because Cleaver declined to press charges.
"The congressman was walking into the Capitol to vote, when one protester spat on him. The congressman would like to thank the U.S. Capitol Police officer who quickly escorted the other Members and him into the Capitol, and defused the tense situation with professionalism and care," said Danny Rotert, a spokesman for Cleaver.
Protesters outside the Capitol hurled epithets at Reps. John Lewis (D-Ga.) and Andre Carson (D-Ind.) as they left the building after President Obama delivered an 11th-hour speech on behalf of the health care bill. Carson told reporters that protesters yelled "kill the bill," then used a racial epithet to describe Carson and Lewis, who is a revered figure on both sides of the aisle.
According to observers, Frank was confronted by about 100 protesters inside the Longworth House Office Building, where Democrats were huddling for another meeting about the legislation. Some targeted Frank with anti-gay epithets and urged him to vote against the bill.
Democratic leaders and their aides said they were outraged by the day's behavior. "I have heard things today that I have not heard since March 15, 1960, when I was marching to get off the back of the bus," said House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.), the highest-ranking black official in Congress.
And Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) said in a statement, "On the one hand, I am saddened that America's debate on health care -- which could have been a national conversation of substance and respect -- has degenerated to the point of such anger and incivility. But on the other, I know that every step toward a more just America has aroused similar hate in its own time; and I know that John Lewis, a hero of the civil rights movement, has learned to wear the worst slurs as a badge of honor."
"This is not the first time the congressman has been called the "n" word and certainly not the worst assault he has endured in his years fighting for equal rights for all Americans," said Rotert, Cleaver's spokesman. "That being said, he is disappointed that in the 21st century our national discourse has devolved to the point of name-calling and spitting."
The incidents followed a noontime protest on the west side of the Capitol that drew several thousand people from around the country for a "Code Red" rally against the health-care bill. Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) addressed the crowd.
As that rally ended, some protesters moved around to the south side of the Capitol, near the entrance to the House chamber, and across the east front of the complex.
On the first day of spring, most lawmakers walked across the street from their office buildings to the Capitol, rather than using the underground tunnels. That brought them into contact with protesters forming a gauntlet on each side of the walkway leading into the House. At one point, when Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) wanted to walk across the street to an office building, he was ushered into a car by his security detail and driven a couple hundred feet through the screaming crowd.
Saturday evening, more than a handful of House Republicans held an impromptu rally on the Capitol steps. Using a megaphone, the lawmakers urged on the crowd. Shortly after 6 p.m., Rep. Ted Poe (R-Tex.) dared House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to come out onto the House steps and address the more than 1,000 people who were gathered at the foot of the Capitol, prompting a loud and angry chant of "Nancy, Nancy, Nancy."
The protesters believe that the Obama administration and Congress are ignoring the public's opposition to the $940 billion legislation, which they consider it to be a government takeover of the health-care system. They carried signs saying "Remember in November"; one carried a broomstick with cardboard pasted onto it with the label "Here's Your Ride," for Pelosi.