WASHINGTON — Thousands of disparate protesters from all walks of life descended on the U.S. Capitol Sunday for one last push on health care. It brought a day of contrasting bombast and belligerence.
The day began with a show of solidarity for black congressmen who on Saturday had been pelted with racial insults and spittle. Civil rights icon Rep John Lewis, D-Ga., walked triumphantly to the Capitol, holding hands with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other Democratic leaders en route to the vote. A trumpeter played the Civil Rights’ era song “We Shall Overcome.”
Competing demonstrators lined the driveway into the Capitol through which most House members arrived, shouting pro- and anti-health care slogans while inside, six Capitol Police officers subdued an unruly protester who'd managed to make it to the House visitor's gallery and screamed anti-health care invective. He was wrestled out.
"Things are colliding today," said Maria Robalino, 35, of Washington, D.C., who was carrying a purple "Catholics for Healthcare Reform" sign.
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For most of the day, the Tea Party demonstrators had been the most vocal, chanting “We the people,” “No, no, no,” and “kill the bill.” But as it became clear that Democrats had won the votes of key anti-abortion lawmakers, the Tea Party protesters lost their enthusiasm, and their numbers shrank.
They were quickly replaced by those who'd supported the health care overhaul as well as hundreds of demonstrators favoring immigration legislation.
Francine Towbridge of Gaithersburg, Md, carried a bouquet of red-white-and-blue balloons and a “Thank you Democrats” sign.
“I am passionate about the Democratic platform, and I wanted to thank Democrats for having the courage to do the right thing,” she said.
The turning point was the announcement by Rep. Bart Stupak, an anti-abortion Democrat from Michigan, that he would support the health care bill.
"They changed their vote," grumbled Karyn Skaggs, 55, of Columbia, Md., about the anti-abortion lawmakers who are now backing the bill. "I'm upset because he was so against this thing...and for him to succumb to a promise that'll never happen, it's disappointing."
There was no repeat of Saturday's ugly incidents when some protesters screamed "kill the bill, nigger" at black congressmen, including Lewis and Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, D-Mo., and used homophopic slurs against Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., one of Congress's three openly gay members and a health care bill supporter.
Republican Party leaders and Tea Party organizers tried to distance themselves from the slurs Sunday.
House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, appearing on NBC's "Meet the Press", called the actions "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."
Some House members spurred the Tea Party protesters on, appearing Sunday on the south balcony of the Capitol with signs spelling out each letter of one of the main Tea Party chants on Sunday: “Kill the bill.”
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 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.
Some of the Tea Party protesters said they were inspired by appeals from Republicans to be present at the Capitol.
Bill Yoder, 62, said he drove to Washington from Dublin, Ohio, with his wife after he saw Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., on Fox News. Bachmann said the bill would authorize the hiring of additional IRS agents to enforce provisions requiring individuals to buy health insurance.
"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.
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.)