Democratic and Republican leaders yesterday condemned the abuse, threats and episodes of vandalism directed against almost a dozen – mostly Democratic – lawmakers, as radical opponents continue to vent their fury against the health reform package voted into law at the weekend.
The ugly new turn in the healthcare debate came as the Senate passed the budget reconciliation House of Representatives prepared to vote on the supplementary package of fixes to the bill signed by President Obama on Tuesday.
These were approved by the Senate earlier yesterday, with the exception of two small changes relating to student grants that necessitated last night's second and conclusive House vote.
Mr Obama meanwhile went to Iowa to promote the greatest achievement of his presidency, returning to the state where he had launched his drive for an overhaul of the US healthcare system. The White House was taking heart yesterday from a new Gallup poll suggesting that by a 49-40 majority, Americans now considered passage of the measure "a good thing" – a first sign perhaps of a swing in the national mood in favour of the measure once it became law, which the administration had been hoping for.
But these successes have been eclipsed by the decidedly nasty, personally menacing attacks that have seen 10 House Democrats and at least one Republican report threatening letters, emails and phone calls, as well as attacks on their district offices and local party headquarters. On Wednesday, more than 100 Democratic Congressmen met to express their "serious concern" about their security. Some have been provided special protection by the Capitol Hill police.
In one case, a brick was thrown through the window of the district office of Democratic Congresswoman Louise Slaughter in Niagara Falls, in upstate New York, while Bart Stupak, the conservative Democrat whose deal with the White House on abortion funding curbs provided the crucial last few votes for passage of the bill, was inundated with abuse.
"I hope you bleed, get cancer and die," was the message left by one caller on his answering machine. A fax arriving at his Congressional office carried a photo of "Mr 'SS' Stupak," alongside a picture of a noose, and the words, "All Baby Killers come to unseemly ends, Either by the hand of man or by the hand of God."
Both parties condemned what was happening, with Republican House leader John Boehner telling reporters that while the measure was a colossal mistake, such protests were beyond the pale. The way to overturn the bill, he said, was "Repeal and Replace" - using grass-roots activism and this November's mid-term elections to create Republican majorities on Capitol Hill.
Nancy Pelosi, the House speaker, declared that violence and physical threats had "no place in a civil debate in our country," before adding that she did "not subscribe to the theory that these acts sprang from the comments of my colleagues". Many Democrats however believe precisely that: that vitriolic rhetoric from many Republicans has fanned the flames, inciting extreme opponents of the health reform to take the law into their own hands.
In particular, the controversy has focused attention on the relationship between the Republicans and the anti-government Tea Party movement, which made healthcare reform its top target.
Tea Party supporters were among the crowd outside the Capitol building on Saturday which hurled vicious racial and homophobic slurs against several prominent House Democrats as they passed by on their way inside into the chamber. Initially some Republicans appeared to condone these outbursts, reinforcing the impression the party would stop at nothing in its determination to "Kill the Bill", whatever the cost. This is strenuously denied by Republican leaders, and there is no sign of a co-ordinated campaign behind the vandalism and abuse.
No Viagra for rapists: Republicans' last stand
Among the arcane procedural challenges and finer legal points of the healthcare bill's final stages, one particular Republican move stood out: Amendment 3,556 to HR 4,872: "No Erectile Dysfunction Drugs to Sex Offenders."
The proposed amendment was the handiwork of Senator Tom Coburn, the Republican from Oklahoma, and it stood among 11 additions he had filed to join the already myriad clauses of the Democrats' healthcare bonanza. "If this bill goes through without this amendment, your tax dollars are going to be paying for Viagra for child molesters," Coburn solemnly told the Senate.
Democrats were predictably unimpressed with a change that they viewed as emblematic of frivolous Republican attempts to derail the bill. "Offering an amendment dealing with Viagra for rapists?" spluttered majority leader Harry Reid. "This isn't serious."
The amendments are aimed at forcing Democrats, who want to pass the bill without additional clauses, to vote down amendments which will ultimately prove politically costly. Others included a proposed referendum on gay marriage, and an attempt to force the government to defund Acorn, the community organisation accused of fraudulent voter registration – which is already defunct. Even John McCain decried the tactic. Most Democrats' views were summed up by Senator Max Baucus. "It's a crass political stunt aimed at making 30-second commercials," he said. "Not public policy."