Lawmakers Try to Tone Down Health Care Town Halls

August 11, 2009 - 6:00 AM
Maryland Sen. Ben Cardin was forced to shout his way through a town hall meeting in Towson, where angry constituents booed and jeered as the Democrat tried to explain the health care proposals moving through Congress.
Clarkston, Ga. (AP) - Angry crowds have put many lawmakers on the defensive as they try to talk about health care with their constituents, leading some to replace public forums with teleconferences or stepping up security to keep protesters at bay.
 
The disturbances come at a critical time as lawmakers -- mostly Democrats -- return home for the August recess and host the meetings to boost support to overhaul the nation's costly health care system.
 
In Georgia, Rep. Hank Johnson told his constituents not to be deterred by reports of "town halls gone wild," but the Democrat wasn't taking any chances at his first health care forum.
 
About 15 police officers -- triple the normal security detail -- were on duty Monday evening in case things took a turn. Guards filtered participants through a metal detector, audience members were warned that shouting would not be allowed, and the 500 in the crowd were told they would get no more than two minutes each to ask a question or make a comment.
 
"There have been some pretty heated town hall meetings thus far," said Johnson, who represents a suburban Atlanta district. "And I'm looking forward to breaking the mold."
 
Some Republicans have seized on noisy demonstrations that disrupted several meetings and clips of clashes posted to YouTube as a sign of lagging public support for President Barack Obama's top domestic policy priority. Obama himself will have a forum on the issue in Portsmouth, N.H., on Tuesday.
 
Though there was some booing and cheering from people on both sides, Johnson's event turned out peaceful.
 
Maryland Sen. Ben Cardin had a tougher time Monday, forced to shout his way through a meeting in Towson, where angry constituents booed and jeered as the Democrat tried to explain the proposals moving through Congress.
 
Some of the town halls have turned testy, leading to arrests and bitter protests. And at least one congressman canceled a forum after being targeted with a death threat. Some Democrats have instead turned to teleconferences, which can reach more constituents -- and be more easily controlled.
 
Rep. Brian Baird, D-Wash., said the "lynch mob mentality" surrounding the forums led him to hold a conference call last week instead of an in-person forum. The call attracted 6,000 constituents -- a crowd he said was 10 times the size of a typical town hall meeting.
 
"When you see friends targeted by death threats and you see well-meaning and well-intentioned people being shouted down, threatened, menaced, and our constituents suffering the same fate, it's frustrating," he said. "This is not American -- it's dangerous."
 
And Rep. Brad Miller, D-N.C., said he will not host any town halls this month because he received a phone call threatening his life. Instead, he said he will hold one-on-one meetings with constituents.
 
Supporters of health care reform are pushing back.
 
Some liberal groups are organizing their own counter-protests. And Democrats are charging Republicans with sanctioning mob tactics and circumventing the process by fomenting made-for-TV shouting matches. In an article published Monday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer wrote: "Drowning out opposing views is simply un-American."
 
Still, many lawmakers have decided it's important to go forward with their meetings to win over reluctant constituents -- in some cases opting to move to a bigger venue, adding security and extending the time for questions.
 
Rep. Niki Tsongas, D-Mass., moved her forum from a local supermarket to a gymnasium Saturday to brace for a bigger turnout. Tsongas spoke to a crowd of about 1,000 while flanked by police officers, but the debate remained civil.
 
In southeast Missouri, police officers in plain clothes mixed with the audience at two town halls hosted Monday by Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill.
 
Another meeting she had scheduled for Tuesday was canceled by a suburban St. Louis school district after a public meeting last week hosted by Democratic Rep. Russ Carnahan ended with six arrests. But McCaskill plans to hold another event Tuesday night with an added hour for questions.
 
"Yeah, people have passionate feelings about this," she said. "But that's what a democracy is about."
 
Other forums have been more peaceful. Rep. Anthony Weiner's meeting last week was relatively quiet, but that may be because the New York Democrat's event wasn't publicized to reporters until a few hours before it started.
 
When some 500 people unexpectedly showed up at a forum by Democratic Rep. Eric Massa in western New York last week, they had to be moved outdoors so it could accommodate everyone who wanted to talk health care. Flashlights were pulled out as the sun went down.
 
Organizing for America, Obama's political operation, is urging supporters to visit the offices of members of Congress to express their support for a health care overhaul.
 
The sessions, dubbed "Office Visits for Health Reform," are designed to counter the opposition by tapping into the president's extensive grass-roots network established during the 2008 campaign.
 
The e-mail appeal to supporters suggests they stop by the local congressional office for a quick conversation or to drop off a customized flier. "We can't let extremists hijack this debate, or confuse Congress about where the people stand," the e-mail says.
 
Baird, who said he's still undecided about how he will vote on the measure, said he's held more than 300 town hall meetings over the last decade -- and plenty of them have had unpleasant moments.
 
"But there was not this concerted effort to purposefully run people out of a room for the joy of a YouTube video," he said. "In that environment, it's counterproductive. And that's a shame."
 
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Associated Press writers Steve LeBlanc in Boston, Jim Salter in St. Louis, Alan Scher Zagier in Poplar Bluff, Mo., Valerie Bauman in Albany, N.Y. and Mike Glover in Des Moines contributed to this report.