House GOP Members Face Voter Anger Over Budget
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — In central Florida, a Congressional town meeting erupted into near chaos on Tuesday as attendees accused a Republican lawmaker of trying to dismantle Medicare while providing tax cuts to corporations and affluent Americans.
At roughly the same time in Wisconsin, Representative Paul D. Ryan, the architect of the Republican budget proposal, faced a packed town meeting, occasional boos and a skeptical audience as he tried to lay out his party’s rationale for overhauling the health insurance program for retirees.
In a church theater here on Tuesday evening, a meeting between Representative Allen B. West and some of his constituents began on a chaotic note, with audience members quickly on their feet, some heckling him and others loudly defending him. “You’re not going to intimidate me,” Mr. West said.
After 10 days of trying to sell constituents on their plan to overhaul Medicare, House Republicans in multiple districts appear to be increasingly on the defensive, facing worried and angry questions from voters and a barrage of new attacks from Democrats and their allies.
The proposed new approach to Medicare — a centerpiece of a budget that Republican leaders have hailed as a courageous effort to address the nation’s long-term fiscal problems — has been a constant topic at town-hall-style sessions and other public gatherings during a two-week Congressional recess that provided the first chance for lawmakers to gauge reaction to the plan.
An example of the response came Tuesday as Representative Daniel Webster, a freshman Republican from Florida, faced an unruly crowd at a packed town meeting in Orlando, where some people, apparently organized or encouraged by liberal groups, brandished signs saying “Hands Off Medicare” and demanded that he instead “tax the rich.”
Mr. Webster, shown in video from station WFTV, sought to defuse the situation by saying that any changes were years away and that current retirees would not see a difference. “Not one senior citizen is harmed by this budget,” he said, noting that his new granddaughter was “looking at a bankrupt country.”
Under the Republican proposal, Medicare would be converted into a program that would subsidize health coverage for retirees rather than provide coverage directly, a change that many Democrats say would risk leaving the elderly with inadequate health care as costs rise over the long run. The Republican budget would also transform Medicaid, which pays for nursing homes for low-income residents, into a grant program to states, raising the possibility that states, under budget pressure, would cut back on coverage.
Democrats face political pressure as well to show that they can bring spending under control and rein in the growth of the national debt, and there are fissures within the party about whether to back tax increases and raise the national debt ceiling without concrete steps to bring down the budget deficit.
Before the release of Mr. Ryan’s proposal, Republicans had expressed confidence that public opinion had turned in their favor, and on Tuesday House leaders sought to reassure Republicans that their budget approach would eventually carry the day. Led by Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio, Republicans held a conference call urging House members to tell voters that it is the Obama administration’s spending plan that would cost jobs and ration health care.
Officials familiar with the call said that rank-and-file lawmakers did not seem alarmed at the response they were getting, and that Mr. Ryan told his fellow Republicans he had been successful in making the case that Medicare would go bankrupt without intervention. Mr. Ryan said he stressed with his constituents that those over 55 or currently on Medicare would still be covered under the existing program.
But news reports noted that Mr. Ryan himself faced a mixed response Tuesday as he held tense meetings with voters, some of whom were turned away because of overflow crowds. It was another indication that Republicans still have a big selling job to do on their budget, especially to older constituents who tend to turn out to vote at higher rates than younger people.
“I think what we have in Washington right now working on Medicare are a bunch of clowns,” said Robert Murphy, 73, a retiree in Fort Lauderdale. “I think they should leave Medicare alone. But I know they can’t leave it the way it is.”
At Mr. West’s meeting on Tuesday evening here, he took only written questions submitted by the audience. The queries were largely friendly, but some people did pipe up loudly about Medicare, accusing him of making misleading remarks. Several were escorted out by security.
Democrats and their allies are stepping up their efforts to organize opposition at public events. They hope to put Republicans back on their heels much as Republicans did to Democrats in the angry town-hall-style meetings conducted during consideration of the health care law.
“We have said from the moment the gavel came down on the vote to end Medicare we would hold them accountable every day in every way,” said Representative Steve Israel of New York, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “That is precisely what we are doing. We encourage everyone to attend these meetings.”
Democrats and other interest groups are mobilizing a campaign that includes automated phone calls, radio and television ads and protests to keep the pressure on Republicans. Americans United for Change, a liberal group, was running automated calls in 23 Republican House districts and television ads in four districts in Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin, in which an announcer says that a House-approved budget amounts to “ending Medicare so millionaires can get another tax break.”
Republicans began to hit back this week, with efforts in the districts of conservative Democrats to change the subject from Medicare to overall federal spending. A new radio ad against Representative Mike Ross, Democrat of Arkansas, paid for by the National Republican Congressional Committee, tells Arkansans that he would continue “to spend your money recklessly.”
As they begin a lengthy battle for public opinion on budget issues, many Republicans say much of the outrage at their meetings stems from Democratic plants sent by MoveOn.org and other liberal groups.
“My town halls are being disrupted by Democrats,” said Representative Lou Barletta of Pennsylvania, whose meetings have been peppered with complaints about Republican policies. “They are apparently being sent to us to do just that. I am not sensing the general public is angered over Medicare reform. When I explain that people over 55 are not affected there is almost a sigh of relief.” He added, “I am not going to do anything different.”
—Jennifer Steinhauer reported from Fort Lauderdale, and Carl Hulse from Washington.