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Key Democrat Feels the Heat in Indiana District After Voting for House Health-Reform Plan

Left, Susan Wells of New Albany, Ind., speaks with Perry Chang, a volunteer seeking to persuade residents to call Rep. Baron Hill's office to express support for President Obama's health-care reform plan. Hill, above, has faced criticism over his recent House committee vote for a reform plan.
Left, Susan Wells of New Albany, Ind., speaks with Perry Chang, a volunteer seeking to persuade residents to call Rep. Baron Hill's office to express support for President Obama's health-care reform plan. Hill, above, has faced criticism over his recent House committee vote for a reform plan. (Photos By Peter Slevin -- The Washington Post)
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By Peter Slevin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 10, 2009

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- "The war's on," says Rep. Baron P. Hill, and he's not talking about a conflict overseas, but a battle over health care in his own back yard, where thousands of people are trying to tell him what to do, some not so nicely.

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Hill is a leader of the Blue Dogs, the caucus of 51 conservative Democrats whose hard-bargaining support is critical to President Obama's bid to overhaul the health system. He came home on recess to find himself a target of groups that want to steer the August conversation and the autumn vote.

These weeks are considered crucial, with Obama traveling the country and interest groups, as varied as the AARP and the insurance industry, spending millions on advertising. Hill, a blunt and pragmatic politician known for moving cautiously, helped postpone a final House vote to give lawmakers time to assess attitudes at home.

Happy to oblige, the Republican National Committee is running a radio ad saying he "folded like a lawn chair" under White House pressure. Conservative opponents are accusing him of ducking honest debate. Obama supporters by the dozen are using tactics more typical of a political campaign to keep him on board.

So many people are calling and writing Hill that the telephone lines in his Bloomington office are often jammed. The phone traffic to his Capitol Hill office is so heavy that one staffer sends an e-mail when he needs to reach colleagues there. On Wednesday, Hill's office mailed 8,400 responses to voters.

One thing Hill is not doing is holding public town-hall meetings like those at which opponents have heckled members of Congress. He held at least six unannounced meetings with constituents last week and is mulling a day-long series of one-on-one meetings or a telephone conference call.

"I'm trying to control the event," Hill said, shortly before an informal discussion with a dozen business people at the Greater Bloomington Chamber of Commerce. "What I don't want to do is create an opportunity for the people who are political terrorists to blow up the meeting and not try to answer thoughtful questions."

That decision irritates some of Hill's constituents, who have been calling his office to demand time. They are furious that he voted July 31 in the House Energy and Commerce Committee for a hefty bill that would include a government-run insurance option.

"He needs to answer the people. He voted yes. Why? Tell us why, Baron. I'm not going to hang you in effigy," said Salem pediatrician Christy Lane. She failed several times to reach Hill's Washington staff, so she instead called the nearby Jeffersonville office.

After a contentious first week of the House recess, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) on Sunday defended the opponents of reform who have disrupted Democrats' town hall meetings. Speaking on Fox News Sunday, he said Democratic criticism of the disruptions "may indicate some weakness in their position on the merits."

Taking another view, Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) said the angry shouting that had dominated some public meetings "isn't the democratic process" and "isn't right." He told CNN, "You know, we need to respect free speech, but we need to respect one another's right to free speech, too."

The battle of Baron Hill is developing as Obama and national groups are mustering foot soldiers and advertising dollars. Advocates have bought $500,000 of television time in the Evansville, Ind., and Louisville, Ky., markets, with more than half coming from the drug industry and its allies, said Evan Tracey of the Campaign Media Analysis Group.


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