Democrats Brace for More Protests

Posted August 6, 2009 at 4:45pm

Three Democratic lawmakers were on the Hill on Thursday pitching a new report on how health care reform will benefit women — an event organized by leadership to draw attention back to the stark realities of the health care system.But the first question they fielded was about the role of protesters at their town-hall meetings on health care. Senate Democrats spent Thursday gearing up to go back to their districts and face potential protests at their events, something the White House is helping them prepare for.None of the three House Members at today’s event — Reps. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) and Jim Moran (D-Va.) — had stories to tell about their town halls. But that didn’t stop them from complaining about the effect the disruptions are having on the health care debate.“Disrupting information that’s important to people defeats the purpose of the town hall,— Maloney said.Citizens “have got to be allowed to have their voice. Disrupting them and trying to rally them out is so unfair,— Cummings added. Moran said he isn’t worried about the prospect of protesters.“I’m looking forward to it, personally,— said Moran, who plans to hold a town-hall gathering later this month. Moran said his district office has gotten phone calls from people who wouldn’t give their names or addresses, but who were “anxious to know where and when the town-hall meeting would be.—Added Moran: “So suspicions are up.—One senior Democratic aide expressed frustration with the “noise machine— keeping people from learning the stark realities of the health care system. For example, said the aide, 28 percent of women between the ages of 19 and 24 have no insurance.“But those are facts you won’t see today on cable TV because no one in our news conference was yelling,— the aide said.In the meantime, the White House dispatched two top advisers to the Hill to counsel Senate Democrats on how to deal with disruptions at their local health care events when they head home for the recess. The Senate is poised to adjourn Thursday evening. White House Senior Adviser David Axelrod and Deputy Chief of Staff Jim Messina met with Democrats to help them “understand the fringe that’s trying to mess up our meetings,— Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) told reporters afterward.Picking up on a theme pushed by Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Reid brought a square of faux grass to his weekly media availability to illustrate his point that disruptions at town halls are not an organic outgrowth of the political debate over health care.“This is not grass roots. This is really AstroTurf,— he said as he stroked the plastic grass.Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said the “staged— protests at town halls are about trying to make it appear that large swaths of the American populace oppose health care reform efforts in Congress.“They don’t care about you.’ They care about YouTube,— Durbin said.Durbin said he will be having constituent meetings this summer but is not going to have the kind of town halls that protesters will be able to easily disrupt.“They want to get the image across America that somehow … Congressmen and Senators can’t defend health care reform,— Durbin said. “I’m not going to allow myself to get sucker-punched here. … For the first time in my career, people are calling my Chicago office begging me for a town meeting. I’ve never had that happen before. We’re going to have meetings, but they’re not going to be the kinds of meetings they’re looking for where they can take them over.—A Durbin spokesman noted that Durbin’s meetings with constituents during August will be similar to ones he’s held in the past, as roundtable discussions or forums open to the public that are typically sponsored by a specific community group. Durbin said his Senate colleagues also were well-positioned to deal with potential disruptions to their constituent gatherings.“The Senate Democratic caucus is full of professionals with a lot of experience. We’ve all been through this. I mean, I’ve faced it on you-name-it. You pick the bumper-sticker issue, somebody’s stood up at a meeting with a bunch of friends and is then screaming at me, so I’m used to that. It’s part of the business,— Durbin said.Democrats also have a new ally ready to take on conservative opponents of health care reform: the AFL-CIO.In a Thursday memo, AFL-CIO President John Sweeney calls on affiliate unions to rally their members to turn out at town-hall meetings over the next 30 days in support of health care reform. The memo outlines plans to target 50 “high-priority districts— and urges local chapters to organize telephone town-hall gatherings.Another AFL-CIO executive issued a statement ripping the “corporate-funded mobs— for crashing town-hall meetings.“These mobs … have been sent by their corporate and lobbyist bankrollers to disrupt, heckle and block meaningful debate. This is a desperation move, meant to slow the momentum for change,— AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Richard Trumka said.Trumka warned insurance companies and Republican leaders to stop cheering on “organized thugs whose sole purpose is to shut down the conversation and attempt to scare our leaders into inaction.—