The Capitol is rarely a lonely place. Even on the most ordinary legislative days, busy staffers bustle in the building’s bowels; maybe a lone protester waves a picket sign at Members near the West Front.
But when by 9 a.m., two belly dancers whoop and jiggle in front of the Supreme Court while a woman in a tri-corner hat rings a miniature Liberty Bell as former Rep. David Wu (D-Ore.) looks on, you know this will not be one of those ordinary days.
The scene was the circus that almost everyone predicted, as the Supreme Court handed down its most anticipated and hotly contested decision in years: President Barack Obama’s signature legislation, the Affordable Care Act, is constitutional.
Throngs of protesters representing all sides of the issue mobbed the court — the aforementioned belly dancers favored a single-payer system, while the tri-corner-hat crowd was hoping for a full repeal.
The Capitol Police, perhaps acting on the experiences of 2009 and 2010, when the tea party descended on the Capitol ahead of votes on the health care law, called patrols from the surrounding streets nearer to the Capitol, according to one officer.
Joining the crowd were some of the law’s most virulent Republican critics — Reps. Louie Gohmert (Texas) and Phil Gingrey (Ga.) and Sen. Ron Johnson (Wis.), to name a few — ready to have the first word on the court’s decision.
“This is an important day in U.S. history here,” Johnson said before the ruling was announced, a wide grin on his face. “I wanted to be down here when the decision was handed down. ... I never would have run for U.S. Senate were it not for the assault on our freedom that this health care law represents.”
Just moments later, as the ruling became public, the grin was gone. “It’s depressing,” he huffed.
The initial reaction was confused, however, spurred by inaccurate reports on CNN, Fox News and Twitter that the law’s centerpiece, the individual mandate, had been struck down.
Tea party protesters began celebrating, calling it a victory for the Constitution.
The single-payer crowd rejoiced, too, yelling, “Yay, we won!” They were prepared to hold the mandate’s demise as the only way to make “Medicare for all,” as their signs read, a reality.
Both sides quickly adjusted their tones after hearing that the decision, authored by Chief Justice John Roberts, upheld the mandate as a tax power.
Unleashing a blistering tirade, Gohmert took to the microphone to call Democrats liars and suggest that Justice Elena Kagan should be impeached.
“If America doesn’t wake up and replace all of those who lied to them to get this bill passed, then shame on us — we don’t deserve the greatest nation of freedom and liberty that was ever given to a people,” he bellowed. “It’s time,” he continued, his voice cracking, “that we paid the price to preserve this gift we were given.”
Inside the Capitol, the news reports caused confusion, too. Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) had gathered in his office with House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and Republican Conference Chairman Jeb Hensarling (Texas) to watch the ruling on Fox News.
They received the mistaken report first, according to an aide.
Even as the facts became clearer, there was a scramble for information that took some 20 minutes. “Was it a 5-4 decision, was it a 7-2 decision? No one knew,” the aide said. “It was a surprise. I don’t think anyone necessarily anticipated that it would be upheld.”
The group headed to a special Conference meeting where, according to aides, Cantor announced the House would vote July 11 on whether to repeal the law in its entirety. Much of the talk in meeting centered on how to craft a unified message.
Members wondered whether to disagree with the court and directly question the justices’ wisdom or whether to even mention the court in statements. In the end, leaders emerged conceding that the court might be right on constitutionality, but the law is still wrong.
Just a few blocks down Pennsylvania Avenue, sitting in the outer Oval Office, Obama was watching the erroneous cable news reports as well.
Just then, White House Counsel Kathryn Ruemmler gave him two thumbs up and told him that five justices had upheld the act. Hugs ensued.
Obama then entered the Oval Office and called Solicitor General Donald Verrilli to congratulate him, according to senior White House officials.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D) was in a Whip meeting when she received the news. Wearing her lucky purple pumps, the same she wore the day the health care bill passed, she returned to her office to make phone calls to the president, Vice President Joseph Biden and Vicki Kennedy, the widow of Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), according to an aide.
Later, on an elevator to her second floor Capitol office, Pelosi told a reporter she was not surprised by the ruling, but that as a fellow Californian, she expected more of Justice Anthony Kennedy, who dissented in the ruling.
The mood was “very upbeat” in a Senate Democratic Conference meeting, according to an aide. But the chamber was predictably Senatorial. Members took to the floor one by one to sound off on the court’s ruling.
Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Chairman Tom Harkin held court for reporters, saying the ruling would help Democrats in November “if they will go out and make a positive case for it. There’s no need to defend anything.”
“It’s there, it’s law now. It’s constitutional,” the Iowa Democrat said.
Steven T. Dennis and Humberto Sanchez contributed to this report.