House Democrats are expressing concerns about their personal safety after protests over health-care legislation. House ...

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WASHINGTON — As opponents’ anger has built over the Democrats’ passage of health-care legislation, Internet posts urging opponents to take action may have sparked a viral spate of vandalism and other threats against members of Congress and their families.

On Tuesday, the brother of Rep. Tom Perriello discovered that the gas line connecting a propane tank to an outdoor grill at his Virginia home had been severed. Days earlier, members of conservative tea-party groups in the area had posted his address online, urging people to “drop by” what they mistakenly believed was the congressman’s home.

The incident — which is under FBI investigation, according to Jessica Barba, Rep. Perriello’s press secretary — is possibly the latest in a string of acts against Democrats who voted in favor of the health-care legislation, which was vehemently opposed by tea-party groups.

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“We’ve had very serious incidents that have occurred over the last 48, 72 hours,” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer told reporters on Wednesday. “Anyone who feels at risk is getting attention from the proper authorities.”

The reports of threats, coming after a tense weekend when protesters hurled racial and homophobic slurs at Democrats and spit on one congressman, left many Democrats shaken.

On Saturday, anti-health-legislation demonstrators outside the Capitol called Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, who is black, a racial epithet and spat on another black lawmaker, Rep. Emanuel Cleaver of Missouri, according to Kristie Greco, a spokeswoman for Majority Whip James Clyburn of South Carolina.

“I heard people saying things today I have not heard since March 15, 1960, when I was marching to try to get off the back of the bus,” Clyburn, who is black, said that day. Clyburn, the highest-ranking black lawmaker in the House, said he received an anonymous fax showing the image of a noose.

Hoyer said some posters carried by demonstrators had lawmakers’ faces in the bull’s-eye target.

Several Republicans stood on the second-floor Speaker’s Balcony overlooking the West Front of the Capitol cheering on the protesters and waving signs such as “Kill the Bill.”

Massachusetts Democrat Barney Frank, the first openly gay lawmaker in Congress and the target of homophobic slurs on Sunday, said that during that day’s debate before the House vote, a half-dozen Republican members stood up on the House floor and cheered a man who yelled “Kill the Bill” from the spectator’s gallery.

Rep. Randy Neugebauer, R-Texas, shouted “baby killer” as anti-abortion Michigan Democrat Bart Stupak explained why he decided to vote for the bill. Neugebauer apologized to Stupak but then cut a campaign Web video saying “I spoke very passionately, because I did not believe what was going on was right for America.”

Hoyer called on Republican leaders to join in condemnation of the threats.

“Any show of appreciation for such actions encourages such actions and ought not to be done,” he said.

Democrats maintain that Republican leaders encouraged the protesters.

On Tuesday, GOP Chairman Michael Steele told Fox News, “so let’s start getting (House Speaker) Nancy (Pelosi) ready for the firing line this November!”

Sarah Palin’s Facebook page features a map with 20 gun sights where her political-action committee, SarahPac, targets incumbent Democrats for defeat in November’s elections. The sights of three Democrats who’ve announced their retirement are colored red.

House Republican leader John Boehner of Ohio, in an interview today on Fox News, condemned the threats and violence and urged people to vent their anger at Washington by registering voters and volunteering on political campaigns.

“There are a lot of angry Americans and they’re angry over this health-care bill,” Boehner told Fox. Still, “violence and threats are unacceptable. It is not the American way.”

Republicans also noted that their members have received threats in the past and that Sen. Jim Bunning, R-Ky., was recently the target of abuse when he blocked added unemployment benefits.

Tea-party officials say they did not encourage or condone attacks on Perriello’s family or property.

“We wanted people to go by and talk to their congressman,” said Nigel Coleman, who heads the Danville Tea Party. Coleman posted the address on his Facebook page after a member of the nearby Lynchburg Tea Party had posted the address on a blog.

Mark Lloyd, who heads the Lynchburg Tea Party, said the group “condemn(s) violence” and that the posting never appeared on the group’s official site.

“Part of the thing we try to preach and teach is obey the law, honor the Constitution,” Lloyd said.

Other acts of vandalism have occurred at Democrats’ offices throughout the country. A brick with the words, “No to Obama,” “No to Obomycare” was thrown through the window of the Sedgwick County Democratic Party headquarters in Wichita, Kan., late Friday or early Saturday.

Glass doors at the Monroe County Democratic Committee in Rochester, N.Y., were also broken by a brick. An attached note read, “Extremism in defense of liberty is not a vice,” a quote by the late Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater, known for his libertarian views.

Bricks were also thrown through district offices of Rep. Louise Slaughter, D-N.Y., and Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz.

Alabama blogger Mike Vanderboegh published a post on Friday that railed against Congress for taking up the controversial health-care bill and urged readers to “break their windows.”

Slaughter’s campaign office received a voice mail “referencing snipers,” she said.

Slaughter said Republican leaders appeared “to be fanning the flames with coded rhetoric.”

She cited a National Review Online article in which Boehner was quoted as saying that Ohio Democrat Steve Driehaus might be a “dead man” politically in his congressional district.

The article, published on March 18, said Boehner predicted political consequences for anti-abortion Democrats who vote to approve the bill.

Referring to Driehaus, Boehner was quoted as saying, “He may be a dead man. He can’t go home to the west side of Cincinnati. The Catholics will run him out of town.”

Boehner spokesman Don Seymour said the Republican leader “does not condone violence and his remark was obviously not meant to be taken literally.”

Protesters have been demonstrating at Driehaus’ Ohio home, said Tim Mulvey, a spokesman for the anti-abortion Democrat who joined Stupak in voting for the health bill. A rock was thrown through the Hamilton County Democratic Party headquarters in Cincinnati, and a death threat was phoned in to his Washington office a day later, Mulvey said.

“It’s getting out of hand,” Mulvey said.

Stupak said he referred about 50 threats to the U.S. Capitol Police for an assessment. Typically in a year he receives one or two threats that rise to the level of a report to the police, he said.

So far, beefed-up security isn’t particularly visible at the Capitol. On any given day, particularly as the weather turns better, the Capitol is swamped with visitors, all of whom are screened for weapons before entering the building, and crowds have been growing.

The political mean season extends beyond Washington. In Miami, Corey Poitier, a black Republican who’s running for a House seat, delivered a speech Monday night in which he called President Obama “Buckwheat.”

Poitier said he didn’t mean any harm in calling Obama the name of the black character from the “Our Gang” and “Little Rascals” movie shorts.

“Maybe it was a little insensitive,” Poitier told Miami TV station WPLG. ” It’s a term that my brother and I use. It was kind of a way of saying, ‘dummy,’ like when I say to my brother, ‘Hey, Buckwheat, cut that out.’ That’s what it was.”

John Geer, a Vanderbilt University political-science professor and the author of the book “In Defense of Negativity” said the political incivility going on in Washington today is cyclical.

“This is not the first time this has happened in American history,” Geer said. However, Geer said the current strain of incivility is amped up by a 24-hour news cycle that in previous eras didn’t cover demonstrations or harsh encounters as much as they’re covered today.

Geer said that going negative can be rewarding.

“People get rewarded for it,” he said. “Joe Wilson says ‘You lie’ and he becomes a hero,” Geer said, referring to the South Carolina Republican who shouted that at President Obama in the House chamber last year.

However, Geer said that most Americans won’t stand for the level of vitriol that’s going on.

“The underlying assumption I have is the American people aren’t fools, they can sort this out and penalize people who go too far,” Geer said.

Compiled from Tribune Washington Bureau, The Associated Press, McClatchy Newspapers, Cox News Service, Bloomberg News, The New York Times, Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post

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