WASHINGTON-Days before the House votes on an historic $894 billion healthcare bill, thousands of Americans came to Capitol Hill with one message for lawmakers: "Kill the bill."
That chant dominated an afternoon of protests on the expansive lawn just outside the House chamber where Speaker Nancy Pelosi may call a vote as early as this weekend on her 1,990-page bill.
One Republican lawmaker after another took to the podium to lambaste the proposed changes and stir up the partisan crowd: "This bill is the greatest threat to freedom that I've seen in my 19 years in Washington," bellowed House Minority Leader John Boehner of Ohio. "It is going to lead to thousands of bureaucrats making these [healthcare] decisions for you."
But Republicans repeatedly admitted to the crowd that they did not have the votes to defeat the healthcare overhaul. That is why, according to Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., the lawmakers hatched the idea for the rally, which they dubbed a "House call, " in a riff on the ongoing medical debate.
"We knew that we were limited, but what we knew was unlimited was the voice of persuasion of the American people," said Bachmann. "And that's why you're here today."
So the afternoon largely belonged to the citizen brigade that covered the Capitol grounds in protest.
"What a crowd. No wonder I couldn't get a room," joked actor and healthcare reform opponent Jon Voight.
The day had a patriotic flair: Kids decked out in colonial-era outfits stood beside parents wearing patriotic hats with tea bags dangling from the brims. Scores of American flags flapped in the light wind of an unseasonably bright, warm day. Numerous protestors also hoisted the historic "Don't Tread on Me" flag.
These competed with hundreds of signs and repeated chants, as citizens from across the country seemed determined to spook Democrats just a week after Halloween: "Public Healthcare is Public Enemy No. 1," read one sign. "Nancy We're Barack," read another.
"You see this building here, you own this building," shouted conservative commentator Mark Levin, referring to the Capitol. "But the people who run that building today reject limited government. Now they have their sights set on the mother of all entitlements."
"Vote them out," responded the crowd, referring to the 2010 elections. Clearly still in a celebratory mood after this week's Republican victories in the New Jersey and Virginia gubernatorial races, the protestors held aloft signs predicting a worse fate for Democrats next November.
Indeed, this week's election results seemed to embolden the crowd. The day's events echoed similar protests here that have attacked the notion of big government. On Sept. 12, an even larger crowd took over Capitol Hill. But that was on a weekend and lawmakers were miles away in their home districts. Thursday's rally came in the midst of the workweek. Suited legislative staffers could be seen peering down on the activity from the Capitol's windows. Soon some of those staffers likely had a chance to meet the protestors: After the rally, lines formed outside the three House office buildings as protestors planned to make calls on as many Democratic lawmakers as possible.
"I would hope that Congress would slow down," said protestor Shan Wilkins, 52 of Berryville, Va., who carried an "It's not your $ Congress" sign. Wilkins, a small businesses owner who is afraid new healthcare regulations would force her into bankruptcy, wants lawmakers to first fix the millions of dollars lost each year in Medicare fraud before adding more federal subsidies. "Let them do one thing right, and then we can talk about giving them more control."
When asked what her reaction would be if, as expected, the House goes ahead and passes the healthcare bill this weekend, Wilkins pledged, "Next year, I'm going to be doing a whole lot of campaigning against [moderate] Blue Dog Democrats."