Reporting from Washington — In the days surrounding passage of healthcare overhaul legislation, Republican lawmakers have been left to strike a fine balance between harnessing voter outrage and fueling it.
Examples of raw anger have piled up. A call to New York Democrat Louise M. Slaughter said snipers would "kill the children of the members who voted for healthcare reform." Later, a brick smashed her Niagara Falls district office window. Hate messages jammed the lines of Michigan Rep. Bart Stupak, the anti-abortion Democrat whose last-minute support helped cinch passage. Law enforcement offered increased protection to at least 10 lawmakers, a security measure usually only afforded party leaders.
The GOP wants nothing more than to ride to victory this November the wave of anger stirred by President Obama's expansion of the federal government -- much of it from the burgeoning "tea party" movement. But as the ire turned ugly, Democrats questioned whether the GOP had crossed the line between loyal opposition and reckless provocation.
"You would think they would come down to the floor of the House and say these actions, this language, is deplorable and we ask that all of our supporters engaged in this conversation on either side do so in a conscientious and reasonable way," saidRep. Steve Driehaus, an Ohio Democrat who received death threats after House Minority Leader John A. Boehner, also from the Buckeye State, said Driehaus could be a "dead man" if he voted for the bill.
Top Republicans distanced themselves from the worst of it, while still defending the motivation of upset voters. On Thursday, GOP members denounced from the floor conduct that had overshadowed otherwise fierce but contained opposition to a much-debated law.
"End the threats. End the vandalism. And let's also end the smears of law-abiding citizens exercising their 1st Amendment right to speech and peaceable assembly," said Mike Pence of Indiana, chairman of the House Republican Conference.
Minority Whip Eric Cantor of Virginia condemned the threats, while also trying to blunt the Democrats' denunciations. "It is reckless to use these incidents as a media vehicle for political gain," he said, suggesting that the Democrats themselves were "dangerously fanning the flames."
Angry protests are nothing new to Washington, especially when unpopular wars are fought or controversial law engineered. The right points out that the left has given as good as it's getting; President George W. Bush was called a dunce and likened to Hitler.
What's different this time is the role of mainstream lawmakers who critics say were not only slow to condemn over-the-top behavior, but sometimes egged it on.
On Sunday, three GOP lawmakers on the Capitol balcony pumped fists and waved posters before an already agitated crowd. When unruly demonstrators were ejected from the House gallery, several Republican members of Congress rose to applaud them. During the debate, some Republican members likened Democrats to the Soviets and warned that freedom was dying in the United States. Alarmed, more than 100 House Democrats met with the FBI and Capitol Police in closed sessions mid-week.
When a gas line was severed at the home of Virginia Democrat Tom Perriello's brother, whose address was published on an opposition website that mistakenly thought it was the congressman's, Boehner called such acts "unacceptable."
Tapping the passion of the political base can be heady and profitable in the short-run. Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) earned a House scolding after he shouted "You lie" during Obama's healthcare address to Congress last September, but in the weeks following received a donations boost that made him the top Republican fundraiser in this election cycle, with nearly $3.4 million in campaign funds.
In the long-run, such appeals risk alienating the centrist voters and independents who typically decide elections. "A lot of Americans who are part of no party's base are repelled by extremes of language or action," said William Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and former Clinton advisor.
But the strategy of both parties today is to win by demonizing the other, and the line of civility keeps getting pushed.
"Behavior that was unheard of and would not be tolerated a generation ago is becoming all too routine. It's not just among Republicans," said Charlie Cook, an independent analyst and publisher of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. He cited Rep. Alan Grayson's (D-Fla.) floor speech saying the GOP's healthcare plan amounted to wanting sick people to "die quickly."
Opinion leaders have urged healthcare opponents to fight on in what some heard as "coded rhetoric" -- Sarah Palin's tweet: "Don't Retreat, Instead -- RELOAD!" and national Republican Party Chairman Michael Steele's wish to see House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on "the firing line."
As the spring recess approached, emotions at the Capitol ran high. The violence was the talk of the Senate cloakroom. House members pointed fingers at one another. At a news conference, Cantor said a bullet struck a window this week in a building where his Richmond campaign office is housed; the police said someone fired into the air.
One Republican lawmaker observed: "This is full-contact sport up here."
Staff writer Janet Hook contributed to this report.