Health care 'town brawls' put Blue Dogs in a tough spot

McClatchy NewspapersAugust 11, 2009 

WASHINGTON — Georgia's Blue Dog Democrats are in the political crosshairs as an increasingly vocal segment of conservatives assail lawmakers for supporting Democrat-backed health care legislation efforts.

It's an uncomfortable position for lawmakers from ideologically moderate to conservative Southern districts who often walk a political middle line and are thus usually able to avoid the fray.

For example, Rep. Sanford Bishop, a Democrat from Albany, Ga., who early on backed President Barack Obama's candidacy, has found himself in the uneasy position of trying to balance his support of the administration's overall health care efforts with his own discomfort over proposals on how to best structure and fund those changes. Rep. Jim Marshall, of Macon, who did not endorse Obama, is in the same position.

Both are part of the Blue Dog Coalition, a group of 52 moderate-to-conservative House Democrats from largely rural or small-town districts. The coalition sent several cautionary letters to House leadership about the pace and shape of health care efforts and effectively helped stall a legislative overhaul until this fall.

Ostensibly, the delay is geared toward providing lawmakers an opportunity to go home and talk with constituents in open forums about the matter during the August recess.

Marshall will host a town hall meeting starting at 6:00 p.m. on Aug. 19 at the Monroe County Board of Education Auditorium in Forsyth. A second town hall meeting is scheduled for 6 p.m. Aug. 24 at VFW Post 6605 in Warner Robins.

Bishop has announced four town hall meetings, including a session at 8:30 a.m. on Aug. 19 at the National Infantry Museum in Columbus. For the past few Fridays, a group of protestors who oppose a government-sponsored health plan have gathered outside Bishop's downtown Thomasville district office. Last month, protesters filed into his Albany office to deliver letters of opposition.

"On an issue as important as this, the members of Congress must be given ample time to review the bill closely and to hear the concerns of their constituents," Bishop said in a statement. "All of you will play an important role in the future of health care, and I encourage you to attend one of these town hall events and let your voices be heard."

Across the country, well-organized groups of grassroots conservatives opposing a government-run health care plan have converged on traditionally sleepy August town hall meetings with lawmakers. At meetings in places like Tampa, Fla., and St. Louis, members of Congress have faced jeers, heckling and tussling crowds.

On Tuesday, staffers discovered a spray-painted swastika outside the Smyrna office of Blue Dog Democrat Rep. David Scott following a contentious meeting with constituents over health care reform.

A number of lawmakers have received hate mail. Others, like Reps. Brad Miller, D-N.C., and Brian Baird, D-Wash., received death threats.

Even lawmakers like Rep. Lynn Westmoreland, R-Grantville, who oppose a government-sponsored insurance plan, have gotten an earful from like-minded constituents. One group protested outside his Coweta office last month and brought along an enlarged copy of the Constitution.

Westmoreland had a town hall meeting earlier this month in Columbus and has a telephone town hall meeting planned for Monday and Tuesday.

In the meantime, lawmakers' Washington offices have been flooded with calls both for and against health care legislation.

"There are going to be boots throughout the district," Bill Wilson, president of Americans for Limited Government, a conservative Libertarian think tank, said of broader opposition efforts. Protesters will make it clear they're not going to be happy should lawmakers try to defend this "mealy-mouth compromise," Wilson said.

On Aug. 22, Wilson's group and others opposing the administration's health care efforts plan a nationwide recess rally at congressional offices including Bishop's, Marshall's and Westmoreland's district offices.

Sensing the broader political threat to the president's efforts, the White House advised several Democratic leaders last week on how to handle the town hall showdowns.

"I don't in any way doubt that there are people that have honest policy disagreements with the White House, or with ... Democrats, whether Republicans or vice versa," White House press secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters last week. "I think you've seen specific groups brag about being able to coalesce and manufacture the anger."

"The president believes, and has always believed, that town hall meetings are a very useful place for the discussion of issues to talk about the decisions that are facing him and the American people," Gibbs said. "They ought to be able to be conducted without shouting and shoving and pushing and people getting hurt. I think we can have honest policy disagreements without being either disagreeable, or certainly without being violent."

McClatchy Newspapers 2009

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