Heeding Obama, voters swamp Congress' websites, phones

McClatchy NewspapersJuly 26, 2011 

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama asked Americans to reach out to Congress to make their voices heard on the debt ceiling debate — and so they did.

Thousands of callers flooded the Capitol switchboard Tuesday, and email traffic swamped congressional servers. The website of Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., crashed briefly, as did those of did Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and Reps. Renee Ellmers, R-N.C., and Frederica Wilson, D-Fla.

"It's been pretty busy today," said Rep. Walter Jones, R-N.C. "The poor interns are having a good time."

The Capitol, which typically handles 20,000 calls per hour, saw spikes of up to 40,000 Tuesday, rivaling the 50,000-an-hour rate of the health care debate.

"Congress and Capitol Hill have been flooded, with emails and phones, switchboards are jammed, servers going down. So it's clear the American people are frustrated by the lack of compromise in Washington," said David Plouffe, the president's senior adviser, who was clearly getting exactly the response the White House had sought when the president on Monday called Washington a town "where compromise has become a dirty word."

The details of their opinions varied widely, but callers and emailers across the country seemed to agree with the president, who warned Congress that even if Americans voted for divided government last fall, they didn't vote for a dysfunctional government. Those heeding the president's advice to make their voices heard on the debate had one common refrain: Get it done.

"Most folks just want Congress to act. I agree," said Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., who intends to support the debt plan that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has put forward. Reid's plan and a separate proposal by House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, could come up for votes as early as Wednesday.

In the office of Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul, who hails from a state where tea party support helped launch him into public office, many of the calls and emails were from constituents calling for him to hold firm in the debt debate.

Other callers expressed concern that the deadline to raise the debt ceiling is looming and Congress has yet to reach a compromise. For his part, Paul eschews both the Boehner and the White House-backed plans.

"Both of the congressional 'deals' would leave our nation spending more and accruing more debt, at least $7 trillion more over the next 10 years," Paul said.

In Florida, where an older population makes the future of Medicare and Social Security at the front and center of the debt ceiling debate, Nelson's office got more than 5,500 emails Tuesday morning.

"Our phones have been ringing off the hook all day — nice to see democracy at work," Florida Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, said on Twitter.

Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, apologized for a sluggish website.

"We're working to get things back to normal," he wrote on Facebook. "I am happy so many Alaskans are speaking out for the need to put politics aside so we can reach a fair and balanced compromise to reduce our deficit and address the debt ceiling."

Rep. Tim Scott's coastal district in South Carolina is predominantly Republican, but his office phones in the state and in Washington were ringing nonstop with calls from many Democrats and independents in response to Obama's appeal.

"We're definitely hearing from both sides," said Sean Smith, a spokesman for Scott, who holds a House of Representatives GOP leadership post representing the party's large freshman class.

"The congressman has even picked up the phone a couple of times himself today just to make sure people know he is hearing and listening to them," Smith said. "We have a fairly strong Republican district, but we're hearing from a lot of people who don't necessarily agree with 'cap and balance.' "

The House passed the "cut, cap and balance" bill, co-authored by fellow South Carolina Republican Rep. Mick Mulvaney, along party lines last week, but it has little chance of passing the Democratic-controlled Senate.

The office of freshman Rep. Vicky Hartzler, R-Mo., had received 500 to 600 emails by midday and about 100 telephone calls by midafternoon Tuesday. Spokesman Steve Walsh said that sentiment was running against the debt reduction plan from House Republicans.

In the adjacent Missouri congressional district, held by Democratic Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, calls increased and more than 200 emails about the issue turned up in the office's inbox. About two-thirds wanted to raise the debt ceiling, increase revenues and cut spending, and the balance said that deep spending cuts should accompany any hike in the ceiling.

Across the state line in Kansas, the issue appeared to be very much on the public's mind. Andrea Candrian, a spokesman for Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., said the office got more than 1,000 emails after the president's speech Monday night, and the phones began ringing as soon as the office opened Tuesday morning.

"The calls are all over the board," she said. "Some want a compromise. Others said, 'Don't you dare give (the president) anything.' Some want a deal and to have it be over. There is not one clear sentiment."

(Halimah Abdullah, Lesley Clark, William Douglas, David Goldstein, Daniel Lippman, James Rosen and Curtis Tate contributed to this report.)

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