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Democrats Dig in Against Health Care Outcry

By Edward Epstein, CQ Staff

August 13, 2009 -- The outspoken, sometimes rowdy opposition at town hall meetings this month so far isn't causing many congressional Democrats to back away from plans to pass sweeping health care overhaul legislation this year.

Interviews with about a dozen Democratic House members reveal they think a lot of the loud criticism they have encountered over the August recess has been ginned up by Republicans, conservative commentators, or groups spending large sums of money to try to derail President Obama's top legislative priority. In most cases, the noisy opposition has only firmed up the Democratic members' determination to get a bill done this year.

Rep. Gene Green, D-Texas, who has already held four sometimes heated town hall meetings on health care this month, said he thought the critics might "have overplayed their hand" in what he said were organized efforts to disrupt town hall meetings and spread misinformation. "At least it has with me," he said.

And Rep. Frank Pallone Jr., D-N.J., said that "right-wing efforts to disrupt meetings might make members realize a lot of what they're hearing is misinformation. What I hear people say is that insurance is unaffordable for many of them and they want us to do something about that."

Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., said her contentious town hall meetings this week, which were heavily covered on cable news networks, were dominated by constituents who don't represent the majority of her state's voters. "While we listen to everyone, most people who come have made up their minds," she said on MSNBC Wednesday. "I'm still trying to find compromise and middle ground."

While the Democrats say they remain resolute, it remains to be seen if the Congress will really be as stalwart when it returns after Labor Day. Obstacles abound. Public support for the health care ideas outlined by Obama and Democratic leaders is dropping in public opinion polls, and the Democrats in Congress have yet to produce complete bills in either chamber, much less bring legislation to the Senate or House floor for a vote.

And Republicans, so far almost completely united in their opposition to the majority's health care ideas, think the Democrats are in big trouble on their proposals that they say are increasingly scaring many Americans amid a recession and a significant expansion of the federal role.

"August was supposed to be the Democrats' chance to turn the numbers around, but if things continue on their current course, Democrats will be in the same (if not worse) position they were when they left town; on the defensive and pointing fingers," the National Republican Congressional Committee said Thursday in a memo sent to GOP House members and the media.

Tactics Backfire?
But Democrats who have faced the toughest going back home say all the fury directed at them has backfired. No one has had a rougher time than Rep. David Scott, D-Ga., who this week had a swastika spray painted on his congressional office sign in Smyrna, Ga., after a town hall meeting. Federal authorities are investigating the incident.

Scott, a member of the Congressional Black Caucus, said he has also received letters containing racial epithets.

"This is serious, serious business," Scott said. "What role does a swastika, these depictions of the president, have in the health care debate? We cannot allow this hate and racism to clutter the debate on health care."

As the only member of Black Caucus who is also a member of the conservative Blue Dogs and the business-oriented New Democrats, Scott said he is in a unique position to help serve as "the glue to pull together a bill."

"I know in working with all of them that we can pull this together and get a bill," he said.

Missing: 'Folks in the Middle'
Rep. Tom Perriello, a Virginia Democratic freshman whom Republicans are making a top target in 2010, said he had already held eight town hall meetings in August, one of which ran 5 1/2 hours. He plans several more.

At the sessions thus far, he said, "there weren't a whole lot of swing voters in the room. We're getting the most spirited advocates on both sides."

Perriello said his job now is to "go out and reach those folks in the middle." But he added, "Frankly some of those in the middle have checked out for the summer. They are going to barbecues and other things."

Rep. David Wu, D-Ore., said he found participants about equally divided for and against Democrats' plans in two town halls he's held.

"People are genuine. But there is orchestration on both sides. Initially, the anti-people were more organized. But it seems evenly balanced now," Wu said. "My constituents want a variety of things. Some are reconcilable. Some are not."

Pallone, who chairs the Energy and Commerce Health Subcommittee, said he's been struck by how much misinformation his constituents have about the health issue. "People come up to me and say that we're going to take away their Medicare, which of course we aren't going to do," he said.

"We know that these things aren't true, and they aren't going to influence members."

Arkansas Democrat Mike Ross said media reports about protesters at an Aug, 5 event he held with fellow Democrat Vic Snyder at Arkansas Children's Hospital in Little Rock were overblown.

"The press portrayed that as being out of control, and I didn't realize it was out of control until I started reading the reports of it," said Ross, a Blue Dog who ultimately supported the health care proposal in the Energy and Commerce Committee. "It was reported a lot different than it was."

Ross, who held a telephone town hall meeting on health care Thursday evening and is holding in-person town halls on the issue Friday and on Aug. 27, said that he has held more than 35 town halls this year and that the Aug. 5 event was the only one at which there had been any disruptions.

"We've only had the crowd get rowdy at one of them, and that wasn't even in my district," he said.

When asked if he detected a shift in his constituents' attitudes since he had returned home for the August break, Ross said a small group were afraid that health care proposals could negatively affect them. But Ross blamed special interests and alarmist ads for stirring up those concerns, saying the majority of the people he had spoken with still were in favor of overhauling health care.

"I have a lot of people thanking me for slowing it down and giving members of Congress a chance to read the bill and listen to their constituents—and these are people who are for health-care reform," Ross said. "There's a small group that are frightened—they're scared or they're angry — and I think they have every right to be. I welcome everyone in my town hall meetings."

Kathleen Hunter, Bart Jansen, Alan K. Ota, Bennett Roth and Greg Vadala contributed to this story.

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