Washington – Law enforcement officials are investigating a series of threats against Democrats in the House of Representatives who backed the recent health care legislation, threats that have lawmakers on edge about potential violence against them both in Washington and back home.
“We’ve had some very serious incidents that have occurred in the last 48 to 72 hours,” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said at a news conference on Wednesday, adding, “any member who feels themselves at risk is getting attention from the proper authorities.”
The incidents have ranged from threatening phone calls to vandalism of lawmakers’ offices. Hoyer initially wouldn’t give say how many lawmakers feel threatened, but when pressed, he said: “a significant number, over 10.”
“A lot of members are concerned about threats since the weekend,” said Rep. William Lacy Clay, D-Mo.
House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, was highly critical of the threats Wednesday.
“There are a lot of angry Americans and they are angry over this health care bill. They’re angry about the fact that the Democrats here in Washington aren’t listening to them,” Boehner told Fox News.
“But I’ve got to tell you that violence and threats are unacceptable. It is not the American way. Yes, I know there is 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.”
Congressional leaders are usually reluctant to discuss security publicly, but Hoyer spoke out after five days of reported incidents against supporters of the bill House Democrats approved Sunday night and President Barack Obama signed into law Tuesday.
In the past week, Rules Committee Chairman Louise Slaughter, D-N.Y., an outspoken, powerful supporter of the health care bill, had a brick thrown through the window of her Niagara Falls, N.Y., office and a message left on her answering machine referencing snipers.
Hoyer said some posters had lawmakers’ faces in the bull’s eye target. Sarah Palin’s Facebook page features a map with 20 gun sights where her political action committee, SarahPac, targets incumbent Democrats for defeat in November’s elections. The sights of three Democrats who’ve announced their retirement are colored red.
Lee Catlin, a spokeswoman for the Albemarle County, Va., Fire Marshal’s Office, confirmed that her office and the FBI are investigating a “suspicious incident” at the home of the brother of Rep. Tom Perriello, D-Va., one of the crucial moderate votes for the bill.
Catlin wouldn’t comment on reports that the gas line was severed at the home, but M.A. Myers, an FBI spokesman, said agents went to the home in a rural subdivision near Charlottesville, Va. He and Catlin declined to comment further.
Democrats maintain that Republican leaders encouraged the protesters. On Tuesday, GOP Chairman Michael Steele told Fox News, “so let’s start getting (House Speaker) Nancy (Pelosi) ready for the firing line this November!”
In Florida, that state’s Tea Party movement issued a statement saying its leaders “stand in stark opposition to any person using derogatory characterizations, threats of violence, or disparaging terms towards members of Congress or the president. We do not believe such actions have actually occurred, but nevertheless, we stand united in opposition to such behavior.”
So far, beefed-up security isn’t particularly visible at the Capitol. On any given day, particularly as the weather turns better, the Capitol is swamped with visitors, all of whom are screened for weapons before entering the building, and crowds have been growing.
Democrats, though, have found little letup in threats after some ugly, often extraordinary scenes at the Capitol over the weekend. Protesters gathered just outside the House side of the building while lawmakers were debating and voting.
Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., a civil rights icon who was severely beaten in 1965 while leading a march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., said he was called “nigger” by hecklers on Saturday.
Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, D-Mo., a United Methodist pastor and a former two-term mayor of Kansas City, Mo., said he was spat upon by a protester. Asked about heightened security Wednesday, he was reluctant to talk, saying, “It is far worse than you guys know.”
Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., one of three openly gay members of Congress, was heckled with homophobic slurs Saturday.
Frayed nerves and harsh words even occurred in the House chamber, where decorum is placed at a premium. A heckler Sunday stood up, hollered “kill the bill,” and some Republican lawmakers cheered.
After Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., announced his support Sunday for the health care bill after receiving assurances that the measure wouldn’t allow federal funds to pay for abortions, Rep. Randy Neugebauer, R-Texas, shouted “It’s a baby killer” as Stupak spoke on the House floor.
Neugebauer apologized to Stupak but then cut a campaign Web video saying “I spoke very passionately, because I did not believe what was going on was right for America.”
He went on to say he would never “quit speaking on behalf of the unborn.”
The political mean season extends beyond Washington. In Miami, Corey Poitier, a black Republican who’s running for a House seat, delivered a speech Monday night in which he called President Barack Obama “Buckwheat.”
Poitier said he didn’t mean any harm in calling Obama the name of the black character from the “Our Gang” and “Little Rascals” movie shorts.
“I wasn’t meaning him any harm,” Poitier told Miami TV station WPLG. “Maybe it was a little insensitive. It’s a term that my brother and I use. It was kind of a way of saying, ‘dummy,’ like when I say to my brother, ‘Hey, Buckwheat, cut that out.’ That’s what it was.”
John Geer, a Vanderbilt University political science professor and the author of the book “In Defense of Negativity” said the political incivility going on in Washington today is cyclical.
“This is not the first time this has happened in American history,” Geer said. However, Geer said the current strain of incivility is amped up by a 24-hour news cycle that in previous eras didn’t cover demonstrations or harsh encounters as much as they’re covered today.
Geer said that going negative can be rewarding.
“People get rewarded for it,” he said. “Joe Wilson says ‘You lie’ and he becomes a hero,” Geer said, referring to the South Carolina Republican who shouted that at President Barack Obama in the House chamber last year.
However, Geer said that most Americans won’t stand for the level of vitriol that’s going on.
“The underlying assumption I have is the American people aren’t fools, they can sort this out and penalize people who go too far,” Geer said.
(Marisa Taylor and Lesley Clark contributed to this article.)