WASHINGTON — Angry demonstrators opposed to health reform legislation gathered outside the Capitol on Sunday, hours before a climactic vote on Democrats' overhaul of the nation's health care system .
Democratic leaders were heckled as they made their way to the Capitol from a nearby House office building. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi led her caucus across the street with a gavel in one hand and the other on the arm of Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, who had been harassed by protesters on Saturday. Protesters shouted Pelosi's name and chanted "kill the bill."
Police arrested two people in the House gallery Sunday after they yelled during a debate session on the bill. Disruptions are banned in the chamber. Several Republican lawmakers stood up and cheered during the interruption.
Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., who has also reportedly been a target of heckling by health bill opponents, called the cheering GOP lawmakers "clowns."
"I've never seen this — for the Republicans to stand up and cheer the guy on," he said.
The disruptions came one day after a raucous protest including chants laced with racial epithets aimed at black members of Congress.
The tone was set outside the Capitol. Clogging the sidewalks and streets of Capitol Hill were at least hundreds — no official estimate was yet available — of loud, furious protesters, many of them tea party opponents of the health care overhaul.
Rallies outside the Capitol are typically orderly, with speeches and well-behaved crowds. Saturday's was different, with anger-fueled demonstrators surrounding members of Congress who walked by, yelling at them.
The motorcade that carried Obama to Capitol Hill to whip up support for the bill drove past crowds waving signs that read "Stop the spending" and "Get your hands out of my pocketbook and health care." Many booed and thrust their thumbs down as Obama rode by.
As police held demonstrators back to clear areas for lawmakers outside the Capitol Obama's speech, some protesters jeered and chanted at the officers, "You work for us."
Rep. Andre Carson, D-Ind., told a reporter that as he left the Cannon House Office Building with Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., a leader of the civil rights era, some among the crowd chanted "the N-word, the N-word, 15 times." Both Carson and Lewis are black, and Lewis spokeswoman Brenda Jones also said that it occurred.
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"It was like going into the time machine with John Lewis," said Carson, a large former police officer who said he wasn't frightened but worried about the 70-year-old Lewis, who is twice his age. "He said it reminded him of another time."
Kristie Greco, spokeswoman for Democratic Whip Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., said a protester spit on Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, D-Mo., who is black and said police escorted the lawmakers into the Capitol. Cleaver's office said he would decline to press charges, but Sgt. Kimberly Schneider of the U.S. Capitol Police said in an e-mail later: "We did not make any arrests today."
Clyburn, who led fellow black students in integrating South Carolina's public facilities a half century ago, called the behavior "absolutely shocking."
"I heard people saying things today that I have not heard since March 15, 1960, when I was marching to try to get off the back of the bus," Clyburn told reporters.
Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., who is gay, said protesters shouted "abusive things" to him as he walked from the Longworth building to the Rayburn building. "It's a mob mentality that doesn't work politically," he said.
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