Thursday, March 25, 2010

WASHINGTON (AP) — House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Thursday condemned vandalism and threats against members of Congress who voted for sweeping health care changes, and House Republicans who fought the legislation joined in urging people to calm down.

“I don’t want this to be a distraction” to the work of Congress, Mrs. Pelosi, California Democrat, said, but she also asserted that such violence and threats of reprisal have “no place in a civil debate in our country” and must be rejected.

At least four Democratic offices in New York, Arizona and Kansas were struck, and at least 10 members of Congress have reported some sort of threats, including obscenity-laced phone messages, congressional leaders have said. No arrests have been reported.

House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, Maryland Democrat, also voiced concern Thursday over warnings of violent reprisals against lawmakers and said the threats are being taken “very seriously.”

“The bottom line is, we need to be very careful in public life that our rhetoric doesn’t incite to violent acts,” Mr. Hoyer said on a network morning news show. He said dealing with difficult issues in a civil and peaceful manner is “at the core of our democracy.”

Mr. Hoyer said Wednesday that lawmakers who felt at risk were to get attention “from the proper authorities.” He declined to say whether any were receiving extra security. Normally, only those in leadership positions have personal security guards.

Mr. Pelosi spoke to reporters at the Capitol shortly after GOP lawmakers took the House floor, pleading with those who vehemently oppose the Democratic health care move to refrain from acts of violence and threats.

Opposition to the health care bill President Obama signed into law Tuesday is “no excuse for bigotry, threats or acts of vandalism,” said Rep. Mike Pence, Indiana Republican, who is the House’s third-ranked GOP member.

Said Rep. Joe Pitts, Pennsylvania Republican: “Some of our colleagues have received threatening phone calls. A brick has been thrown; a window has been smashed. This is not the right way to respond.”

Mr. Hoyer on Thursday did not single out any member of Congress or political party as having made statements that could encourage such acts, but he did say he thought some of the rhetoric “has been far beyond legitimate debate.”

“In our democracy,” he said, “we resolve things, not through violence, not at the point of a gun. If we don’t do that, we will devolve into a society that we’re not going to like.”

Rep. John Boccieri of Ohio, one of eight Democrats who switched to “yes” on the most recent House vote, said he had received threats. “Having flown missions in and out of Afghanistan, I know what it’s like to be in harm’s way, but I never imagined serving in Congress could feel the same,” said Mr. Boccieri, a major in the Air Force Reserve. He did not elaborate on the threats.

Rep. Louise M. Slaughter, New York Democrat and chairwoman of an influential House committee, said someone had left her a voice mail that used the word “snipers.”

Some of the anger spilled over in a flood of threat-filled phone and fax messages to the office of Rep. Bart Stupak, Michigan Democrat. Mr. Stupak vowed to oppose the health care package unless given greater assurance that it would not allow federal funding of elective abortions. He voted in favor after the administration agreed.

Mr. Stupak’s office released some of the messages and declined further comment.

“I hope you bleed … (get) cancer and die,” one male caller told the congressman between curses.

A fax with the title “Defecating on Stupak” carried a picture of a gallows with “Bart (SS) Stupak” on it and a noose attached. It was captioned, “All Baby Killers come to unseemly ends Either by the hand of man or by the hand of God.”

And in Virginia, someone cut a propane line leading to a grill at the Charlottesville home of Rep. Tom Perriello’s brother after the address was posted online by activists angry about the health care overhaul. Mr. Perriello also said a threatening letter was sent to his brother’s house.

Senate Sergeant at Arms Terrance W. Gainer told the Associated Press on Thursday that there was “no evidence that annoying, harassing or threatening telephone calls or e-mails are coordinated. Regrettably though, bloggers and twitters seem to feed off each other, leaving little room for creativity.”

At the news conference, Mrs. Pelosi noted that “our country has had a lively debate.” She also said that it is “important for us to be able to express ourselves freely, not to diminish that in any way, but also to hit a standard that says some of the actions … must be rejected.”

Mrs. Pelosi said she didn’t mean her criticism to “paint everyone with what has happened here with the same brush,” and she said she did not “subscribe to the theory that these acts sprang from the comments of my colleagues.”

“I think we have to manage this issue very carefully, recognizing we are a democracy,” Mrs. Pelosi said. “We do not want to stifle debate or free expression of it.”

The FBI is working with lawmakers subjected to menacing, obscenity-laced phone messages. In some instances, bricks were hurled through congressional offices, including Ms. Slaughter’s district headquarters in Niagara Falls, N.Y.

Rep. Barney Frank, Massachusetts Democrat, called it “an effort to kind of hijack the debate by coercive elements. I’m glad the Republican leadership colleagues denounce it, but they were very late to do that.”

“It is unacceptable in America,” said Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, who exhorted angry citizens to channel their rage into voter registration.

The vandalism and threats surprised a researcher at a think tank that monitors extremist groups.

“I think it is astounding that we are seeing this wave of vigilantism,” said Mark Potok of the Alabama-based Southern Poverty Law Center.

Gun imagery was used in a posting on the Facebook page of former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin urging people to organize against 20 House Democrats who voted for the health care bill and whose districts went for the McCain-Palin ticket two years ago in the presidential election. Mrs. Palin’s post featured a U.S. map with circles and cross hairs over the 20 districts.

Mr. McCain defended Mrs. Palin, saying it was commonplace practice and “part of the lexicon” to refer to “targeted” congressional districts.

Associated Press writers Emily Wagster Pettus in Jackson, Miss.; David N. Goodman in Detroit; Dena Potter and Bob Lewis in Richmond; Ben Dobbin in Rochester, N.Y.; Mark Carlson in Phoenix; and Laurie Kellman in Washington contributed to this report.

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