Sunday, September 13, 2009

Tens of thousands of conservative “tea party” protesters brought their angry grass-roots movement to the steps of the Capitol on Saturday in a muscular political demonstration against big government spending, budget deficits, taxes and President Obama’s sweeping health care plan.

In a patriotic, flag-waving “March on Washington” that conservative leaders said was a newly energized political movement determined to stop the Obama administration’s tax-and-spending programs, the protesters stretched for blocks up Pennsylvania Avenue to a massive rally on the West Lawn of the Capitol, chanting, “USA,” “Enough, Enough” and “We the people.”

Rally leaders estimated the crowd at about 75,000, but others said it was larger than that. Organizers had expected between 25,000 and 50,000.

Leaders of the rally said that it drew “tea party” conservatives from every state in the country who had staged hundreds of local tax-day rallies across the country on April 15 to protest the $1.5 trillion deficit, record-breaking spending bills and what they see as the government’s increasing encroachment on their freedoms.

One of the rally’s speakers, Georgia Rep. Tom Price, chairman of the conservative House Republican Study Committee, said the protest rally was a declaration by “a new generation of patriots to carry that torch of liberty” to “take our country back.”

Republican Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina called for a return to “constitutional government” and said “it was time that the president started listening to us.”

But most of the speakers were local grass-roots tea party activists like coal miner Greg Harrell, who said that lawmakers who ignored the tea party movement’s appeals for smaller, more limited government would be thrown out of office by the voters. “We will find you, and we will fire you,” Mr. Harrell warned.

A major focus of the protesters and some of the speakers was the president’s $1 trillion health care reform plan. Betsy McCaughey, a former lieutenant governor of New York, who has been a sharp critic of the plan, carried a copy of the 1,000-plus page House health care bill to the podium and said that Mr. Obama’s statement that it would not force people to drop their health care plans was “untrue.”

“You’ll have to change to what the government has, and if you won’t change to what the government wants you to join, you will be fined thousands of dollars,” Ms. McCaughey said. “No deal. No deal.” The crowd chanted back, “No deal.”

Many of the protesters said they had not been politically active before but decided to come to the rally because they felt that government spending was out of control and that proposals pending in Congress, like the health plan that is being drawn up by the Democrats, would rob them of their freedom of choice and burden their children with trillions of dollars in debt.

Gary Brown, 53, of Greer, S.C., said, “We want our freedom back. The Constitution is the law of the land. We don’t need lawyers to interpret it. Get out of our lives.”

Dr. Wayne Kawalek, an emergency-room physician from Cleveland, said he, too, was concerned about the consequences of the president’s health care plan. “The Obama administration is going about this in the wrong way. This is a huge debacle. It’s sad that we’ve come this far,” he said.

Judy Spanel, 49, from Springfield, Ohio, who was a registered nurse for 30 years, said, “I’ve always voted but have never been active in politics. We’ve watched this country decline. The deficit spending is out of hand. They keep coming to us for money.”

A number of people came dressed in Colonial costumes with tri-cornered hats or carrying hand-written signs that read, “Obamacare makes me sick,” “I’m Not Your ATM” and “Vote Out All Incumbent Crooks.” One man was dressed up as Barack Obama, wearing a purple robe and a crown.

A woman who would identify herself only as Anette, dressed as a shackled Statue of Liberty with green face and all, traveled here from Nevada. She said this was the first time she had been to Washington. “The only thing I’m sorry I did not do is paint tears on my face,” she said.

Plans for Saturday’s rally began to take shape in April after the size and number of tax-day “tea party” rallies surprised conservative leaders who saw in the local protests the beginnings of a powerful new nationwide movement. The groups shunned politicians and national organizations at first, communicating with one another through the Internet, which blossomed with dozens of new tea party Web sites.

The movement grew in size and number when tea party protesters stormed hundreds of congressional town halls in August, lodging their complaints about the costly health care spending bills Congress was preparing to pass, fearing a government takeover of the health care industry would deny them their freedom to choose their own insurance plans, doctors and health care procedures. The large turnout of angry citizens is credited with changing the minds of a number of Democratic lawmakers, who now say they will vote against the House health care bill.

Preparations for the rally were handled by FreedomWorks, a national free-market, anti-tax advocacy group headed by former House Republican Leader Dick Armey of Texas. But dozens of other groups co-sponsored the gathering, including Tea Party Patriots, ResistNet, National Taxpayers Union, Young Americans for Liberty, the Heartland Institute and the Ayn Rand Center for Individual Rights.

A new group out of Sacramento, Calif., organized the Tea Party Express, a caravan of buses and other vehicles seeking to bring the disparate groups together though a 17-day, 34-rally tour across the country that turned out thousands at their events and at the same time promoted the Sept. 12 rally at each stop. Conservative talk-show hosts also heavily promoted the event, including Fox News commentator Glenn Beck and talk-radio king Rush Limbaugh.

But Saturday’s rally at the doorstep of Congress was only a part of yesterday’s turnout. Rally organizers said many other rallies were held across the country for people who were unable or could not afford to travel to Washington.

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