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For some lawmakers, the summer return home has been less than a welcoming experience.
The angry mood at town halls meetings, plus scores of protests across the country this month, suggests the debate over spending cuts and reducing the federal deficit is far from over. Groups on both sides have used the August recess to target lawmakers.
Liberal protesters carried caskets to the offices of Republican lawmakers to symbolize the death of the middle class as a result of the debt ceiling agreement that mandates more than $2 trillion in spending cuts over the next decade. At the same time, conservatives faulted Members who backed the deal because they said it didn’t cut spending enough and vowed to watch carefully as a new bipartisan super committee determines which programs to cut.
The two sides squared off at town hall meetings across the country.
Lawmakers didn’t face widespread disruptions at this year’s town halls, as they did two years ago in the midst of the health care debate, but it’s clear that the budget issue has touched a nerve among voters.
In Texas, tensions brewed at a meeting with Democratic Rep. Gene Green as someone in the audience called the Congressman a coward for backing the deal. Liberals in the audience asked Green why he wasn’t doing more to increase Social Security benefits and regulate the financial sector.
“Forget the compromises,” Houston resident Damien Wule said. “We’ve got to stand on principle.”
Others argued that the debt ceiling increase was unnecessary.
“We were never, never in danger of default,” said Floyd Van Wagner, another Houston resident who recommended that the federal government “get out of the Social Security business.”
“People are frustrated,” Green said in an interview after the hourlong town hall meeting. “What Congress does very publicly and the disagreements we have don’t give people around the country what they want, [which] is stability.”
Across town, Republican Rep. Kevin Brady faced similar anger from tea party activists.
In a 30-minute presentation in Houston’s northern suburbs, Brady explained why he supported the debt deal and vowed to call for more cuts, especially to entitlement programs such as Social Security. But the speech failed to impress some in the 50-person crowd.
“I’ve already told him he’s lost my vote,” Houston Tea Party Society member Vicki Mertes said. “I’m a little upset at him because he did not stand his ground.”
Felicia Cravens, a board member for Mertes’ group, said tea party leaders are encouraging activists to locate town hall meetings using an online tracking system set up by Washington, D.C.-based libertarian group FreedomWorks.
The site includes information about the recently passed compromise and an “August Recess Action Kit” with talking points for town hall attendees.
“When we can provide activists solid information, they react,” Cravens said. “There is a real serious doubt about the sustainability of what we’re doing financially.”
Cravens said she expects tea partyers to keep the pressure on lawmakers as the super committee deliberates on cuts.
“When [lawmakers] go off the rails, we’re going to publicize the heck out of it,” she said.
Liberal activists under the newly formed American Dream Movement banner have held more than 40 protests nationwide demanding fewer cuts and more job-creation programs.
“More and more American workers are convinced that there is plenty of money in this country. It’s just not being invested in people,” said Mary Kay Henry, president of Service Employees International Union, which supports the American Dream Movement.
In Pennsylvania last week, activists carried a coffin to the Middletown office of Republican Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick to symbolize the death of the middle class.
“American working people are going to keep the drumbeat going and insisting the government and the private sector get us back to work,” Henry said.
In Wisconsin, eight unemployed individuals staged a sit-in at a district office of Republican Rep. Paul Ryan. They demanded an in-person meeting with the lawmaker to discuss job-creation ideas.
Protester Shanon Molina, a Kenosha resident and mother, said she was scouring newspapers for jobs as she sat in Ryan’s office. The former office administrator lost her job two weeks ago.
“I’m really feeling ignored,” she said. “If you want to stimulate the economy, you have to help the people, not businesses.”
Ryan spokesman Kevin Seifert said the lawmaker has offered to host a conference call with the protesters but is unable to fit them into a busy August schedule of constituent meetings, tours of local businesses and telephone town halls.
But Molina said she wants an in-person meeting, just like the ones that Ryan has held with Wisconsin business owners.
“I’ll be there until his office closes. I’ll be here on Monday, I’ll be here on Tuesday, Wednesday. I’ll be here until he shows up or I find a job,” she said.