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Washington Sketch: Eric Cantor Tries a Civil Approach to the Health-Care Debate

Yes, that was Eric Cantor saying, "Stop the revival stuff and let's talk."
Yes, that was Eric Cantor saying, "Stop the revival stuff and let's talk." (By Alexa Welch Edlund -- Richmond Times-dispatch)

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Of course he did. The summer's meetings were lots of fun: freewheeling gatherings often hijacked by the loudest and most opinionated. But what Cantor participated in on Monday was quite different. Joining him on stage was Rep. Bobby Scott, an African American who is a prominent supporter of the House Democrats' health-care bill, including the controversial "public option." Both men made it clear that they were going to have what Cantor called "a civil debate."

A moderator, the newspaper's publisher, put limits on time for questions and comments, posters and signs were forbidden, and at least one aspiring troublemaker was removed by the cops. Questioners had to turn in cards with their names and addresses before speaking. "We know who you are," Thomas Silvestri, the publisher, reminded the crowd of 250 before the event. "The public square is all about having a civil conversation -- got it?"

Given the circumstances, Cacciotti suppressed his impulse to pull a Joe Wilson. "I didn't want to be disruptive," he explained.

For Cantor's colleagues, this provided a valuable lesson, should they wish to heed it: Republican lawmakers can control the angry voices on the right.

There was potential for trouble. The grumbling started almost immediately, when Scott made his opening pitch for the public option. But Cantor was militantly mild. "I want to start by agreeing with several things that Bobby said," he offered.

The Democrat reciprocated. "Eric and I agree on 80 percent," Scott reported.

The questioners, like opposing fans at a football game, offered up angry sentiments: "The country's already broke, sir! . . . Add it up! It's in the bill! . . . Oh, yeah? I'm listening. . . . Where's the beef? . . . Sounds crazy." But while the participants shook their heads and occasionally mumbled retorts, not a single heckler emerged. The closest the crowd came to disruption was applauding like-minded questioners when they offered up recommendations such as "Cut the waste now!"

Ultimately, those in the audience got the message. Toward the end, a man rose to thank the lawmakers for getting through the session "without the rhetoric and the ugliness" and to suggest that "if the rest of those folks would follow your model I think we could get to that 20 percent" of health-care legislation on which disagreements remain.

At least for the moment, Cantor was of similar mind. "I do think you can fix some of the 20 percent," he said after the event, even daring to forecast a health-care deal by the end of the year. "I think, yes, something will emerge," he said.

Particularly if the newly civil Cantor can persuade his GOP colleagues to muzzle the death-panel crowd.


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© 2009 The Washington Post Company

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