Lawmakers hope for quiet recess of town hall meetings as parties eye midterms

By Sandhya Somashekhar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 3, 2010; 2:47 PM

As House members headed home this week for their August recess, memories were fresh from last year when the typically sleepy six-week break erupted into one of the biggest political stories of the year when "tea party" activists stormed town hall meetings held by Democratic lawmakers, thrusting the movement into the national spotlight.

This year, though, activists on both sides of the aisle are expecting a quieter August. Democrats say anger over the health-care law, which drew so many of the protesters, has died down. Republicans and conservatives say that emotions on the issue remain high but that the focus has shifted to the November elections.

Americans for Prosperity, a conservative advocacy group that organized some of the protests, said its activists this year will focus on phone-banking and door-knocking in key legislative districts to highlight their congressmen's votes on the economic stimulus, the environmental cap-and-trade bill and other legislation the group opposes.

"Town halls are mostly about, or should be about, an exchange of information," said Dallas Woodhouse, North Carolina director for Americans for Prosperity. "We are past the time for a lot of in-depth exchange of information. We are now at a time for motivation. And people are motivated, especially on the right and the conservative side.

Traditionally, summer recess is a time for lawmakers to meet with constituents, gather information and discuss their agendas. But last year, some Democrats found the meeting halls overrun with protesters angry about the health-care overhaul and concerned about the size and reach of government.

Video of the lawmakers' sometimes intemperate responses ended up on YouTube. Some lawmakers encountered more aggressive protests, including Rep. Frank M. Kratovil Jr. (D-Md.), who was hanged in effigy by a protester. The protests set the tone for the months of debate on health-care reform, which passed in March.

At least two conservative groups, Liberty Central and the Leadership Institute, are trying to re-create some of that energy. Dubbing August "accountability month," they have developed training videos with such titles as "Speak Up: Creative Ways to Get Your Voice Heard."

But it's unclear whether their efforts will resonate with Americans this time around. According to a July report by the nonpartisan Kaiser Family Foundation, more people describe their attitude toward the new health-care law as "anxious," "confused," "disappointed," "pleased" and "relieved" than as "angry."

For months, Republicans have been accusing Democratic lawmakers of avoiding constituents for fear of being berated by conservative protesters. On Monday, Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.) said, said on MSNBC that "Democrats have gone into hiding" while Republicans "are out there taking our message to the people."

But nothing could be further from the truth, say Democrats, many of whom are facing tight races for reelection and must maintain constant contact with voters if they are to win in November.

"It's totally baseless," said Doug Thornell, spokesman for Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.), a Democratic leader in the House. "Not to mention that it would be a horrible way to win reelection."

During the House's one-week recess in July, Democratic members held more than 600 public events, including more than 50 town halls, according to Speaker Nancy Pelosi's office. In a July 26 memo, Pelosi (D-Calif.) urged Democratic House members to "do events and media" in August and September around issues such as consumer protection, social security and veterans' affairs.

Some of the Democratic lawmakers who were targeted by protesters last summer are hosting town hall meetings again, including Rep. Jim Himes (Conn.). Rep. Tom Perriello, who faced some vitriol during a series of meetings across his central Virginia district, is holding no fewer than 20 town halls this summer.

Last year, Perriello encountered both conservative and liberal activists at his town halls, spokeswoman Jessica Barba said. This year the meetings are being organized for times throughout the day, not just in the evenings, to attract more non-activist voters such as small business owners and working moms, Barba said.

Still, Perriello could very well encounter more "passionate" constituents this summer, Barba said. A freshman Democrat in a formerly Republican seat, he has been the frequent target of protests since he was elected two years ago, she said.

"Tom is constantly out in front of his constituents explaining why his votes are in the best interest of the district," she said. As for the town hall meetings, she said, "Your guess is as good as mine as to who's going to show up."

Roll Call recently reported that, through June 16, members of Congress this year had attended more than 920 in-person town hall meetings, an increase over the first six months of last year. Democrats, who represent 59 percent of Congress, accounted for about 53 percent of the meetings. The publication cited as its source the congressional database site, Knowlegis, owned by the CQ-Roll Call Group.

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