By Michael O’Brien - 03/24/10 11:59 PM EDT
Democrats on Wednesday decried a spike in threats made to lawmakers who voted for the healthcare legislation and accused Republicans of fomenting violent behavior.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said there have been at least 10 threats made to lawmakers since the healthcare vote, and noted that Democratic and Republican leaders had conferred over the growing number of “very serious incidences” that put lawmakers’ safety at risk.
The threats prompted a briefing for members by U.S. Capitol Police days before lawmakers are set to return to their districts for a two-week recess and face voters for the first time since completing the yearlong debate that roused emotions on both sides of the issue.
“I would hope that we would join together jointly and make it clear that none of us condone this activity,” Hoyer said at a news conference. “And when we see it, we speak out strongly in opposition to it. I would hope that we can do that going forward.”
Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) called the threats “unacceptable.”
“Violence and threats are unacceptable,” Boehner said during an interview on Fox News. “That is not the American way.”
The Senate is expected by the weekend to approve the final changes to the healthcare bill that President Barack Obama signed into law on Tuesday, but the debate outside Washington is likely to continue up until the midterm elections.
Democrats took the opportunity to link Republicans and organizers of the Tea Party movement with the physical threats made.
“This is now the face of the Republican Party; they have not taken responsibility,” said Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), the assistant to the Speaker, during an appearance on MSNBC. “They have, in fact, joined in this kind of activity. There is no denying the fact that they are stoking the flames here.”
House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.) accused former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, who is expected to be a GOP presidential candidate in 2012, of exploiting conservative activists’ anger.
Palin took to her Facebook page on Wednesday to announce a campaign to unseat 20 Democratic supporters of the healthcare bill and included a graphic that set crosshairs over the lawmakers’ districts.
Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.) told The Hill that he thinks Democratic lawmakers are feeding the public’s frenzy over the threats they’ve received by discussing them so openly with the media.
“I don’t believe that we ought to be fanning these flames like this,” he said in an interview. “And I’m very concerned on all sides. Inappropriate behavior is never condoned by anyone. I’m a bit concerned about how it’s been handled around here in a public way because I think it just tends to fan the flames.”
The latest threat toward a lawmaker came Wednesday, when the FBI initiated an investigation into a cut gas line at the home of Rep. Tom Perriello’s (D-Va.) brother.
“While it is too early to say anything definitive regarding political motivations behind this act, it’s never too early for political leaders to condemn threats of violence, particularly as threats to other members of Congress and their children escalate,” said Perriello, who voted for the health bill. “And so I ask every member of House and Senate leadership to state unequivocally tonight that it is never OK to harm or threaten elected officials and their families with anything more than political retribution.”
Perriello’s brother’s address was posted online by a Tea Party activist who initially thought it was Perriello’s.
Other safety issues that had emerged included reported death threats against the wife of Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.), who pushed for more stringent restrictions on funding for abortions in the healthcare bill, as well as several instances of vandalism against other members’ district offices.
Tension has engulfed the healthcare debate from the beginning, with early accusations from Palin and others over the summer that Democrats had planned “death panels” for the elderly as part of the legislation.
The debate ended much the same way, with black and gay lawmakers enduring racial and homophobic slurs from protesters at the Capitol before Sunday’s vote. One lawmaker, Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.), was spat at.
The incidents this week also mirror threats some Democrats had faced last summer at the height of the healthcare battle.
Reps. Brian Baird (D-Wash.), Dennis Moore (D-Kan.) and Brad Miller (D-N.C.) had received death threats, and a swastika was drawn on the office of Rep. David Scott (D-Ga.). Protesters also burned an effigy of Rep. Frank Kratovil (D-Md.).
“We ought to make it clear that this isn’t a partisan issue — this is not a Republican or Democratic issue,” Hoyer said. “But when people start talking the rhetoric of putting people on ‘firing lines,’ that if they don’t do something they will have physical harm done to them, that other rhetoric of that type — or they put a target on their faces with crosshairs — that activity ought to be unacceptable in our democracy.”
The majority leader’s remarks are a direct reference to controversial statements by Republican National Committee (RNC) Chairman Michael Steele, who said Tuesday on Fox News that voters should “start getting [Speaker] Nancy [Pelosi (D-Calif.)] ready for the firing line this November.”
Pelosi last year became choked up amid the intensifying debate on healthcare reform, saying she feared that political violence would break out.
Slaughter, meanwhile, called on the GOP to speak out forcefully.
“It’s more disturbing to me that Republican leadership has not condemned these attacks and instead appears to be fanning the flames with coded rhetoric,” Slaughter said in a release.
Palin said “don’t retreat — reload.” And House Minority Leader John Boehner said that a Democratic member of Congress who supported healthcare reform would be a “dead man.””
The Democratic National Committee (DNC) also sought to capitalize on the threats, with its communications staff on Wednesday circulating various instances of Democratic lawmakers having received threats for their health votes.
Clyburn suggested that by not speaking out forcefully enough against the threats, GOP leaders were complicit in those actions.
“One thing that we know…is that silence gives consent,” Clyburn said. “People need to know that the vast majority of the American people look to us to provide the manner in which differences in our society ought to be resolved.”
Boehner said Republicans should capitalize on voters’ anger, but only at the polls.
“Yes, I know there’s anger, but let’s take that anger and go out and register people to vote, go volunteer on a political campaign, and let’s do it the right way,” he said.
Jordy Yager contributed to this article.