In a boisterous reprise of the summer town hall meetings that galvanized Republican opposition to the Democratic health care overhaul plans, demonstrators -- including several busloads from Minnesota -- followed Bachmann's exhortation to fan out throughout the House office buildings and confront lawmakers, who are scheduled to vote on Saturday.
U.S. Capitol Police reported 12 arrests outside the office of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on charges ranging from unlawful entry to disorderly conduct. Pelosi, a California Democrat, had been a focal point for many of the protesters, including one who wore a mask depicting Pelosi holding handfuls of bloody fetuses.
Minnesota protesters made stops at the offices of Bachmann, and Minnesota Democrats Tim Walz and Keith Ellison. Walz was unavailable but Ellison met with them briefly.
Dozens of top GOP House leaders showed up on the Capitol steps to greet the crowd. But it was Bachmann, boosted by her status as a frequent conservative talk radio and television guest, who clearly was the main draw.
As GOP House leader John Boehner of Ohio led the Republican delegation to a stage on the West Front of the Capitol, hundreds in the crowd started chanting "We want Michele!"
"Are they going to listen?" Bachmann asked the cheering throngs, referring to House Democrats. "Oh, yeah, they're going to listen."
Congressional aides said the idea of a Washington rally had been discussed among Republican leaders in recent weeks, but that some members of the GOP caucus remained cool to the idea. Not Bachmann.
While the rally had many interest-group and grass-roots organizers, Bachmann took on the leadership mantle, promoting the event in several television interviews over the past week, including the Sean Hannity show on Fox News last Friday.
"That really was the spark," said Rep. John Klein, who attended the rally with fellow Minnesota Republican Erik Paulsen.
Among those who responded was Minneapolis Tea Party activist Deanna Boss, who helped charter three buses carrying 120 people, some of them affiliated with evangelical church groups in Minnesota. Marveling at the big turnout, Boss said, "By the time we get back to Minneapolis, it won't even have been a week since we organized this."
By some estimates, as many as 5,000 to 10,000 showed up at what Bachmann had dubbed the "Super Bowl of Freedom." At times, it felt like a coronation for the two-term congresswoman from Minnesota's Sixth District, who waded into the crowd to greet well-wishers at the end of the rally.
"I see her as a pure leader," said Jerry Hershenberger, a manager at a car manufacturing plant in Dallas. "Look at what she did. She took the idea and ran with it and the American people responded."
The other star of the show, actor Jon Voight, called Bachmann "a great congresswoman and a true American patriot."
Democrats were quick to mock Bachmann, who has become a lightning rod for the American left. "If the Republican Party wants to make Michele Bachmann the voice of the party, that's more than fine with us," said Democratic National Committee spokesman Hari Sevugan, accusing her of an "extreme right-wing, rigid ideological agenda."
Bachmann, in language that frequently evoked patriotic images, told the crowd, "You are the most beautiful sight any of us freedom fighters have seen in a long time."
Between speakers, the crowd chanted "Kill the bill!" and hoisted banners that read "In God We Trust, Not the Government." A copy of the nearly 2,000-page text adorned the dais, tied up in a yellow cord.
Shortly after the rally, thousands of people swarmed the entrances of nearby congressional office buildings and formed massive lines as they passed through security.
"I want my freedom back," said Anita Sanborgh, of Cottage Grove, standing in line outside the Longworth House Office Building to see Kline.
About 10 Minnesotans, many adorned with health-care-related buttons and T-shirts, headed off to see Ellison, arguably the state's most liberal congressman and an ardent promoter of the public option. Ellison, his ear to a phone, inadvertently passed the group in the hallway and walked into his office as they followed, asking to speak with him.
Meeting with Ellison
A legislative director then took control of the conversation, asking the people gathered in the lobby and doorway of the office to identify themselves. Ellison reemerged several minutes later.
"OK, I'm the one you want to talk to," Ellison said. "So how are you doing, welcome to my office. ... So what's up everybody?"
After one Minnesotan told her story, Ellison requested that a reporter leave the room so he could speak with the group privately. People interviewed leaving the meeting said the congressman took a firm stance against theirs, but said the conversation was respectful.
"There's a lot of emotion. But it's very civil," said Renee Doyle, a graphic designer from Amboy. She added, "It seems that he feels like he has a personal responsibility to -- for us poor people -- take over our will because he knows best."
Ellison said later in a phone interview that they had "a good exchange" and the questions were all "legitimate and good."
"They were pretty polite and reasonable after we started talking," Ellison said. "Not that we ever agreed, but they really were fairly polite, you know, and I was not really prepared for that."
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