GOP Lawmakers Prepare For Town Hall Events On Health Care Plans

Feb 16, 2017
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Over the last few weeks, some members of Congress have been met by large and rowdy crowds when they go back home and hold town hall meetings. Republicans have been the main targets in part because of their party's plan to repeal and replace Obamacare. Now lawmakers are preparing to return home again for a week, and NPR congressional correspondent Susan Davis reports they've been preparing.

SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: Michigan Republican Justin Amash has already held two town halls this year. He's faced hundreds of constituents, many of them angry and shouting him down. So he has some advice for his colleagues headed home. Just keep doing them.

JUSTIN AMASH: The people coming to the town halls are concerned, and their concerns are reasonable. We might not always agree on how to resolve some of these issues, but I think it's important to learn from people who come to your town halls.

DAVIS: Amash says Republicans can win the argument over how to revamp the individual health care market but not if they don't engage with the public.

AMASH: I hope more of my colleagues will do that, will go back home and talk to people and not hide from their own positions. Express your positions.

DAVIS: Party leaders sent Republicans home with an 18-page packet of positions, outlining their talking points and policy goals on overhauling Obamacare. It's complicated, and it hasn't gone over that well at many town hall meeting so far, so lawmakers are also opting to use other ways to reach constituents with their health care message that avoids public confrontations.

TOM MACARTHUR: I want to communicate with my constituents, and I also really need to hear from them. And so we're finding ways to do that without letting outside agitators hijack the process. That's not fair to my constituents.

DAVIS: That's New Jersey Republican Tom MacArthur. He likes Tele-Town Halls. They let lawmakers host conference calls with thousands of constituents at once. His most recent one had 5,000 people on the call, but only one person can talk at a time.

MACARTHUR: I gave instructions to my staff. I don't want you screening out people that see things differently. I need to hear from people that view things in different ways.

DAVIS: Republicans reject the suggestion that surging turnout at town halls is in any way reminiscent of the tea party uprising in 2009 and 2010. Those clashes helped build a political movement that redefined the Republican Party and forced House Democrats out of power. Republicans like Scott Perry of Pennsylvania argue these clashes are staged by Democratic activists. In other words, it's not as organic or genuine is the tea party movement.

SCOTT PERRY: This is something wholly different I think. I understand they're using some of the same methodology, but it's not the same thing.

DAVIS: New Mexico Democrat Ben Ray Lujan runs the party's campaign operation. He says Republicans are misguided to dismiss what's happening at these town halls.

BEN RAY LUJAN: This is organic. There's no AstroTurf to this. Our colleagues can try to spin the energy that we're seeing across the country any way that they'd like. This energy is real.

DAVIS: It's an energy Democrats are trying to harness in their favor. Democratic outfits like Families USA are coordinating with local activists and tracking town hall events across the country to protest Republican efforts to repeal Obamacare. Conservative groups like the tea-party-aligned Freedom Works announced this week they're organizing a counter push to encourage their activists to attend town halls to provide cover and support for Republicans.

Democratic strategist Jesse Ferguson, who witnessed the Democratic wipeout in 2010, says Republicans could experience the other side of a wave next year if the public turns against them in this health care debate.

JESSE FERGUSON: As a political operative looking at the next election, I hope beyond hope that Republicans continue to stick their head in the sand and deny that they have any growing problem with the electorate.

DAVIS: Republican leaders say they'll start moving health care legislation the week after they return from this recess. Susan Davis, NPR News, the Capitol.

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