Tea Partiers reckon with likely passage of health reform

WASHINGTON– “Might as well not even be here,” grumbled Georgia Holliday. “I can’t believe that Dick Armey screwed up like this!”

tea partiers

Holliday was not alone. Having traveled into the city from the suburbs for the 10 a.m. “Code Red” rally on the Capitol grounds, she got more and more annoyed that she couldn’t hear any of the speakers. (She was also annoyed at the wrong Tea Party activist — the Code Red rally was sponsored by a coalition of Tea Party groups, while a different, 9 a.m. rally had been organized by Armey’s FreedomWorks.) As Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) waved a copy the massive Senate version health care bill — “I brought an abortion to show you!” — Holliday winced and chanted her disapproval.

“Kill the bill!” she said. “Kill the bill! And get us a PA system!”

The Code Red rally was small, drawing around 300 people into a noisy circle. So was the FreedomWorks “People’s Surge,” which sent Tea Party activists onto Capitol Hall to seek out one-on-one meetings with members of Congress whose votes could decide the fate of health care reform. Both events were mocked for their size, by Democrats and liberal groups that had grown used to explosive media coverage of the conservative movement. “I’ve been to birthday parties that drew more people,” sneered DNC spokesman Hari Sevugan in an email to Politico’s Ben Smith.

If the relative fizzle fazed Tea Party organizers — FreedomWorks had hoped for closer to 2,500 activists — they didn’t show it. Rob Jordan of FreedomWorks told smug Democrats to wait for election day: “You can count on people showing up.” Libertarian and conservative blogs reported on larger Tea Party protests happening in Michigan and San Diego.

But the smallish numbers of the March 16 Tea Party push amplified the new attitude coming from politicians and activists: pessimism. Slightly over a year since the start of the movement, Tea Party activists were, for the first time, contemplating a major legislative victory for President Barack Obama and the Democrats — the final passage of health care reform. While many held out hope that plans to pass the Senate’s version of reform in the House would stall out, others pondered their next steps. Some, like Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), took a dark view of what might come.

“Right now, they’re civil, because they think they have a chance of stopping this bill,” said King to reporters, waving his arm at a pack of “People’s Surge” activists forming a line to enter the Cannon House Office Building. “The reason we don’t have violence in this country like they do in dictatorships is because we have votes, and our leaders listen to their constituents. Now we’re in a situation where the leaders are defying the people!” Later, King would expand on those remarks and speculate on a possible anti-Washington revolt in which Tea Parties would “fill the streets” of the capital.

Few Tea Party activists were as pessimistic as King. All agreed that the determination of Democrats to pass a bill — post-Sept. 12, post-Massachusetts special election — was getting harder to overcome.

“Nothing they do surprises me!” said an exasperated Amy Kremer of Tea Party Express. “Nancy Pelosi has said, ‘If we can’t get through the fence, we’ll go over it; if we can’t go over the fence, we’ll catapult over it; if we can’t catapult over it, we’ll parachute over it.’ So, basically, they’ll do whatever it takes. Just a total disregard for what the American people want.”

Activists spent the day — they plan on spending most of this month — trying to convey just what it is they say Americans want. Those who arrived at the Hill on Tuesday morning were handed thick packets of advice on how to lobby members, and who needed their attention. Those who couldn’t make it there could pick up other guidelines at a small “war room” set up at a hotel a few blocks south of the Capitol. In all cases, activists were given advice on how to complement the phone calls and faxes that were coming to targeted representatives from, largely, Americans who didn’t live in their districts. A white sketchpad in the war room ran down a few possible responses to members who blanched at talking to the activists.

“If you are not a constituent and they don’t want to talk to you,” advised war room organizers, “ask — ‘If you won’t talk to someone from outside of your district are you ready or willing to pledge not to take money from donors outside of your district?’ Or — ‘If I gave you a donation, would you talk to me?’”

The lobbying had mixed results. A group of activists from Georgia said that they were trying to lobby Rep. John Barrow (D-Ga.), who has said he’d vote “no” on the Senate bill, after a difficult time lobbying Rep. Sanford Bishop (D-Ga.), who has said he’d vote yes.

“We spent an hour with him,” grimaced Kathryn Jackson, a retired hospital worker from Fortson, Ga. She pointed to a lamppost. “It was about as useful as talking to that, right there.”

Kathy Ropte — like Jackson, a member of the Harris County, Ga. Tea Party, had started to move beyond lobbying. As cameras snapped away, she stood in front of the Cannon Building and announced the termination, “to take effect in November,” of pro-health care reform members. One activist chided her for the display, which included a massive sign reading “Waterboard Congress.” Jackson didn’t care. She was in the fight, whether or not health care reform passed.

“One day I turned off American Idol,” Ropte said, “and I turned on Fox News. Before this year I’d never voted in my life.”

Of the activists I spoke to here, none were ready to give up on opposing health care reform if the bill passed. Some, however, were looking to other potential fights. Jane, a Montgomery County, Md. activist who declined to give her last name (”my kids don’t want to see it show up in the paper!”) suggested that a health care win would free up President Obama to give amnesty to undocumented immigrants, possibly by an executive order. Susan Clark, whose sign compared the health care bill to the notorious Tuskegee Experiment, suggested that passage would bring Democrats a step closer to enforcing a new “slavery” over Americans. But most activists who pondered the aftermath of health care reform’s passage said they would fight on, looking for ways to roll it back. Susan Birch, a Chester County, Penn. activist, sported a button for insurgent Pennsylvania gubernatorial candidate Sam Rohrer because he was pledging to make the governor’s office “the front line” against government expansion.

“Whatever Congress does,” said Birch, “you’re going to see the 10th Amendment invoked to stop it.”

The thought of a post-vote backlash — electoral and legal — was the cheeriest thought of the day.

“I’ve got a standing bet with [Rep.] Jason Altmire [D-Pa.],” said Henry Hill, a retired police officer and member of the Pittsburgh Tea Party. “A case of Yuengling says that the mandate will not go through the Supreme Court.”

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David Weigel

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