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Specter Faces Heat at Latest Town Hall

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KITTANNING, Pa. — Sen. Arlen Specter encountered yet another angry crowd at a town-hall meeting Thursday in suburban Pittsburgh, where locals peppered the new Democratic Senator with their concerns about health care reform legislation in Congress.

Specter entered the room to a rowdy chorus of cheers and jeers, and he attempted to answer a wide range of questions on health care, from pre-existing conditions to a proposed advisory board and the public insurance option. One middle-aged woman was on the verge of tears when she described to Specter how she believed her grandchildren would be forced to pay off the national debt.

“I know a lot of people might not like what the government is talking about. But the alternative is absolute disaster,” Specter said in response to a question about the cost of reforming health care.

Specter attempted to reassure the crowd that he would not vote for a plan that increased the deficit or would force people to leave their current health insurance providers if they liked the coverage. But the crowd was skeptical, and Specter was often interrupted by people who motioned the letter “L” with their hands on their forehead indicating he was a “liar.”

Almost 200 people filled a community center conference room with hundreds more outside carrying signs protesting the plan — and Specter himself, who announced earlier this year that he was switching parties to run for re-election in 2010 as a Democrat. Specter faces the prospect of a tough Democratic primary next year against Rep. Joe Sestak (D), with former Rep. Pat Toomey waiting in the wings as the likely Republican nominee.

The event was Specter’s fourth town hall in as many days this recess, which has been marked by angry constituents haranguing Members of Congress with their concerns about Democrats’ plans for health care. In this particular town hall, 30 pre-selected participants asked Specter long-winded and often emotional questions, filled with personal anecdotes of their own health insurance woes.

“I’ve had hundreds of town meetings in my career virtually in every county in virtually every year, and I’ve never seen anything like this,” Specter said after the event.

The town hall was scheduled several weeks ago, and invitations were likely sent to local residents before Congressional leaders knew health care would dominate the recess discussion.

“I’ll be reporting to my colleagues in Washington what the temperature is in Kittaning. It’s about 213 [degrees] Fahrenheit,” Specter quipped.

Several questioners pointed to specific parts of the proposed bills, which they said they found on government Web sites. A visibly tired Specter repeatedly responded that there was, in fact, no final bill yet and that he was there to listen to his constituents’ concerns.

“We don’t have a bill, so a lot of what we’re talking about in the bill — the objections — is speculative,” Specter said. “From my point of view, I’m trying to take the pulse of my constituents.”

But Specter wasn’t the only one feeling the heat.

The first people allowed in the door said they arrived before 7 a.m. and waited more than seven hours in upward of 90-degree weather for the opportunity to ask Specter a question. Others waited four or five hours in sweltering heat outside in order to get inside the town hall.

Although the raucous crowd interrupted speakers and the Senator with periodic jeers and applause, there was only one major disruption: A middle-aged man walked out of the room accusing Specter of planting the questioners and called the Senator a “socialist.” At the end of the more than 60 minutes of questioning, Specter revised his earlier assessment.

“It’s not 213 degrees Fahrenheit,” he said. “It’s 235.”

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