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Democrats Gird for Town-Hall Protests

House Democratic leaders have a strategy for countering protesters attempting to disrupt Members’ town-hall meetings on health care over the August recess: Do nothing.

Armed with signs and ready to shout for hours, protesters have been crashing Democrats’ health care events ever since they returned to their districts. And the interest groups behind the efforts — including Conservatives for Patients’ Rights and FreedomWorks — have shown no sign of relenting in the coming weeks.

But House Democratic leaders are banking on the opposition buckling under its own weight and say their Members, even the most vulnerable, are ready for a partisan assault.

“We’ve talked to them before they left the Congress about how to approach these things,” said Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “We’ve encouraged them to communicate about health care in all different ways, including press events and telephone town-hall meetings.”

Van Hollen predicted that the groups’ more dramatic tactics — which have included the display of Nazi signs, a hanging effigy of Rep. Frank Kratovil (D-Md.) and a tombstone bearing the name of Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-Texas) — will “backfire in a big way” because their aim is to keep citizens from having a conversation about health care.

“When you’ve got people shouting and hanging Members of Congress in effigy, most people are going to react badly to that. I think most people want to have a civil discussion,” he said.

A senior House Democratic aide emphasized that Members were “absolutely” prepared for the disruptions and, to date, none of them has asked leadership for advice on how to handle them.

The aide pointed out that several Democrats, including Reps. Loretta Sanchez (Calif.) and Peter Visclosky (Ind.), have successfully held town-hall meetings. Even Rep. Steve Kagen (D-Wis.), who was up against shouting protesters, “stood his ground, took questions and answered his constituents for an hour,” the aide said.

Van Hollen criticized the “well-funded lobbyists” behind the effort, as well as Republican leaders who have been quiet about their role.

House Minority Leader John Boehner (Ohio) and other GOP leaders “are actively involved in sort of fueling the fire of these disruptions,” Van Hollen said. “They’ve got to be careful what they ask for here. ... If Republicans want to continue to ally themselves with these fringe groups, it will continue to discredit them.”

Republicans have openly fanned the flames of the protests, although they have denied orchestrating the chaos at Democratic town halls.

The National Republican Congressional Committee has been sending out e-mails titled “Recess Roastings” that link to news articles and video clips of protesters at local health care events.

“Democrats have gone from blaming Republican obstruction, to the insurance industry, to Matt Drudge, and now they are even blaming the voters who are registering their opposition at town halls across the country,” NRCC spokesman Ken Spain said.

“At what point are they going to get the message that people simply don’t want a government takeover of health care?” Spain asked.

Rep. Gerry Connolly (Va.), president of the freshman Democratic class, warned that right-wing groups are taking things to “a dangerous level” by manufacturing anger based on false information.

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