An effigy of Rep. Frank Kratovil Jr. was hung outside his office on the eastern shore of Maryland. Rep. Steve Kagen of Wisconsin was shouted down by angry constituents. Rep. Timothy H. Bishop of New York had such a raucous experience with critics on Long Island that he avoids town hall meetings for more manageable settings.
The spark for political firestorms around these back-bench Democrats has been President Obama’s effort to overhaul the healthcare system. The debate has gotten especially ugly now that Congress is adjourning for a monthlong summer recess and critics are mobilizing in force.
Much of the fiercest opposition has been fanned by talk radio and conservative advocacy groups. But the bitter intensity is a pointed reminder of how hard it will be for Democrats to sell voters on a broad reworking of the healthcare system, even though they hold commanding majorities in the House and Senate.
The challenge for Democrats is particularly tough because the healthcare system is little understood by most people, and the legislation contains a large number of elements that conservatives can seize upon. An overhaul could reach far into the lives of many Americans, affecting such matters as what prescription drugs they could get and whether abortion would be more or less available.
At the same time that Democrats are trying to show the need for change, powerful special interests, such as health insurers, are arguing that altering the healthcare system could hurt. And some of the party’s more conservative members are having second thoughts about the cost of the overhaul.
Democrats had hoped that this month’s congressional recess would give lawmakers a chance to explain the healthcare legislation and tell voters what’s in it for them. But critics got a jump on that debate and are already deep into a campaign to portray the legislation, which is still being written, as a government takeover of healthcare that will disrupt voters’ established relationships with doctors. Absent definitive legislation, critics have been able to demonize provisions that may not be in the final bill.
This is hardly the first time that lawmakers’ town hall meetings have been swamped with emotional outpourings during a congressional recess. In past years, lawmakers have gotten earfuls about cracking down on illegal immigration and on former President George W. Bush’s plan for overhauling Social Security.
Still, the rancor this year is noteworthy.
Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-Texas) ran into a group opposed to the Democrats’ healthcare proposals Saturday when he tried to hold a constituent meeting in an Austin grocery store. Protesters surrounded him and followed him into the parking lot, chanting, “Just say no!”
Their signs included one with a picture of Doggett sporting devil’s horns.
“Many of these people were summoned in by the local Republican and Libertarian parties,” Doggett said on MSNBC’s “Hardball With Chris Matthews.” “They didn’t even live in the neighborhood. They were there not just to be heard but to ensure other people weren’t heard on this.”
When Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.) appeared in Philadelphia on Sunday with Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, the pair were booed and heckled by people accusing Specter of not reading the healthcare legislation.
When the senator explained that Congress sometimes had to make judgments “very fast,” the crowd erupted with derision. Sebelius was hooted down when she tried to defend members of Congress as hardworking.
Americans for Prosperity, a free-market advocacy group, has been leading a conservative coalition that has urged people to find out when lawmakers are planning public meetings and to confront them with questions, such as whether they have read all 1,000-plus pages of the bill.
Kagen, the Wisconsin lawmaker, could hardly get a word in edgewise when he tried to talk about healthcare at a constituent meeting Tuesday.
Bishop, of New York, faced such an unruly crowd at a June town hall meeting that he has since looked for alternative settings to talk to constituents.
Democrats contend that the disruption of lawmakers’ meetings does not reflect broad public opposition to the healthcare overhaul. Rather, they say, it is arising from an orchestrated effort by conservative groups, GOP leaders and “AstroTurf” organizations that claim to represent grass-roots voters but are backed by special interests.
Democratic leaders are warning rank-and-file members of Congress to beware of such efforts: Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) warned his colleagues against getting a “sucker punch” on the issue.
“These are screamers, not rational debaters,” said Brendan Daly, spokesman for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco). “Regular constituents are not getting heard. They shut down any other voice than their own.”
Still, there is evidence of genuine public opposition to the Democrats’ healthcare plans.
Leslie Kirkeide, a sales representative in Lake Forest, Ill., said in an interview that she was very concerned about the legislation, and that she had plenty of company.
“People are very upset,” she said. “This is the biggest thing Congress has ever tackled.”
Organizers of the opposition have “touched a nerve” as the public has started focusing on the potential effect on lives and pocketbooks, said Robert Blendon, a professor of public policy at the Harvard School of Public Health.
He said that people were asking questions like: “Over time, will my family be better off or worse off?” and “Will it be helping me as well as helping uninsured people?”
A Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll in late July found that support for Obama’s healthcare plan had dropped: 42% called it a bad idea and 36% said it was a good idea. In mid-June, opinions were about evenly divided.
Some groups who oppose the Democrats’ legislation say they want their members to attend the lawmakers’ district meetings, but not as a disruptive force.
“We never condone disruptive behavior,” said Amy Menefee, spokeswoman for Americans for Prosperity, which says it has 700,000 members. “We always tell people to be civil and respectful.”