POLITICS

Health care protests start small, expected to grow

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Politics,Steve Contorno

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Audio, video and the transcript from Monday's proceedings

The two-year national argument over President Obama's health care law failed to produce the massive fireworks many expected Monday outside the U.S. Supreme Court.

Instead, the demonstrations on the opening day of oral arguments included a few hundred people for and against the health care reforms. For four hours, they marched, waved signs, chanted slogans and hinted that their numbers would grow as three days of hearings wear on.

Still, for a city that played host to massive social movements, opening day attendance outside the court was relatively sparse. Those camped out in front of the court since Friday hoping to get a seat inside said it was hardly necessary, or worth it.

But with the eyes of the nation focused on the high court, the platform for the protesters extended well beyond the steps of the Supreme Court building. For many, though, Monday was an opportunity to show support for the Affordable Care Act in ways both Obama and the Democratic Party have failed to do in the two years since it was signed into law.

Health care reform advocates, consisting mainly of union organizers, left-leaning advocacy groups and their supporters, who made up a majority of the demonstraters Monday, said they intend to use the occasion to take control of the health care debate away from the Tea Party organizations that have dominated the conversation for nearly two years.

"I don't think we've communicated our message clearly," said Deborah Jefferson, a retiree from Silver Spring, sporting an Obama hat and shirt. "We're showing our presence today and showing we do have legitimate reasons for wanting this."

The groups paraded doctors and patients who praised the law in front of the cameras, while chanting, "We love Obamacare" -- putting a positive spin on what has become the political right's derogatory term for health care reform.

Several dozen opponents countered with "No we don't," and "Get a job" in the face of the demonstrators during hours of sometimes tense but never violent discourse.

"It is my desire [the court] rules based on the Constitution, not public opinion," said Amy Brighton, an Ohio member of the Tea Party Patriots. "But we're getting out here and letting people know there is a majority of us who don't support it."

Looking to capitalize on the moment, Republican presidential contender Rick Santorum made a quick stop in front of the Supreme Court, vowing to make health care the center of his campaign.

Santorum charged that Republican front-runner Mitt Romney is "the worst candidate to go against Obama on the biggest issue of this campaign" because Romney instituted similar reforms as governor of Massachusetts.

Both sides are bracing for a rowdier Tuesday, when the Supreme Court will hear arguments on a central component of the new law, the so-called individual mandate that requires people to buy health insurance or pay a penalty.

That would be closer to what Daniel Rice expected when he arrived from North Carolina at 6:45 a.m. Monday with a sleeping bag and a chair hoping to catch Day Two from inside.

"I came here taking more of an academic approach to observe this," said Rice, a legal research assistant at Wake Forrest University. "I was hoping to see lots of protests."

scontorno@washingtonexaminer.com

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