Cardin Sharpens Health-Care Reform Message After Contentious Public Meetings

Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.) faced constituents angry, fearful and distrusting of a government health-care overhaul in a series of town hall meetings this week in Towson, Hagerstown and Salisbury. If his experience resembles that of other lawmakers, many may return to Washington next month with sharper focus and a greater personal stake in the debate following intense emotional confrontations with voters close to home. Video by Aaron Davis/The Washington Post
By Aaron C. Davis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 15, 2009

Comfortable at home in his favorite chair, Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin was watching a cooking show Sunday night, until he flipped to CNN and glimpsed his future: a man in a raucous crowd screaming at Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.) about health-care reform.

Back at home 24 hours later, nothing, including the Food Network, could calm Cardin (D-Md.). The first of his two town hall-style meetings and four public appearances scheduled for the week had been mobbed by more than 1,000 people. He had been booed, hissed at and called a Nazi on national television.

Myrna, Cardin's wife of 42 years, walked into the living room of their home north of Baltimore and told the man who rarely drinks to pour a vodka. He filled a glass with Ketel One and ice and steeled himself for a week that he said Thursday was among the most intense of his 42-year political career.

In the wake of the community meetings, which laid bare the height of public distrust and fear about health-care reform, Americans on both sides of the debate are wondering whether the spectacles might alter or even derail chances for reform.

Cardin said the meetings have changed lawmakers, but probably not in the way most of those who shouted the loudest would like.

"I'm more resolved than ever," Cardin, 65, said Thursday after his whirlwind week. "I love debating. I'm sorry more of that couldn't happen this week because of so much of the shouting, but I personally believe the American people still want us to deal with tough problems. We're not all going to agree, that's obvious, but we're at the point we need a specific bill."

If Cardin's experience resembles that of other lawmakers, many might return from the August recess with a sharper focus on and a greater personal stake in the issue after intense confrontations with voters close to home. During his week crisscrossing Maryland, where he faced some of the nation's most hostile crowds, Cardin revised his pro-reform argument and devised a list of promises to try to assuage the angry.

For Cardin, the health-care bill must include two key elements he had never demanded publicly but promised to voters during the past week.

Questioned on Monday night in Towson by two men about the overhaul's cost, Cardin responded with jargon that failed to quiet the hecklers, saying that it would have to "reduce the rate of growth increase" of health-care spending.

On Wednesday in Hagerstown, he answered four questions about costs, each more forcefully than the last, saying that he would not vote for a bill that increased the national debt.

A day later, in Salisbury on the Eastern Shore, Cardin made a statement before opening the floor for questions. He said he would vote only for a bill that is fully paid for in a 10-year window and that begins to lower the national debt.

In an interview after the meeting Thursday, Cardin said he had privately told the Democratic caucus that a full funding structure must be included in the bill, but he said he had never articulated that publicly.

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