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Anger and Protests Rattle Town Halls on Health Care

August 7, 2009 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Legislators across the nation opened their August recesses with town halls on health care reform. Rather than a warm welcome home, however, most were met with constituents angry with the range of legislative proposals under consideration in Washington. Betty Ann Bowser reports.
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BETTY ANN BOWSER, NewsHour correspondent: It’s been just one week since members of the House hit the road to find out what constituents think of their party’s health care reform bills, and what some of them are running into is a lot of August heat.

Yesterday, nearly 200 protesters, both for and against current reform proposals, showed up outside this health clinic in Denver, where Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and local congressional representatives came to sell Democratic reform ideas.

Pelosi, for her part, seemed unfazed by the ruckus.

REP. NANCY PELOSI, D-Calif., Speaker of the House: What you see is, I think, a display of the democratic process, where people come forward and express their views. And we all respect that.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Elsewhere, protests have been even more disruptive. Yesterday, Congressman John Dingell, long an advocate of health care reform was booed and jeered at during a town hall meeting he held in Romulus, Michigan. The gathering became so contentious that police escorted some people away.

Earlier in the week, Texas Democrat Gene Green was shouted down at a town hall meeting.

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said much of that anger is being orchestrated by right-leaning groups and big money interests.

ROBERT GIBBS, White House press secretary: I think you’ve had groups today, the Conservatives for Patients’ Rights, that have bragged about organizing and manufacturing that anger.

AD NARRATOR: Seems when Congress gets involved, things just cost more.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Conservatives for Patients’ Rights, founded by a former hospital CEO, has spent millions to front TV ads opposing the Democratic health care proposals. The group’s Web site targets congressional town hall meetings and urges people to go and protest.

But the organization denies there is anything manufactured about the anger people feel. Nancy Rumfelt is affiliated with the group and several other activist organizations.

NANCY RUMFELT: There’s been lots of protests done by the left, you know, on the Iraq war and stuff, and, you know, people didn’t question, you know, how helpful was that, because it’s their First Amendment right to do that, just as it is ours to do this.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Andrew Ward says he supports these groups but is not controlled by them.

ANDREW WARD: I’m not bought and paid for. I’m not part of an angry mob. I’m not part of a vast right-wing conspiracy. I’m here because I am who I am, and because I heard about it and want to come down and let my voice be heard.

I’m part of the Republican Party, but I’m not bought and paid for. I wasn’t told to come here. I came here on my own because I’m a worried American.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: President Obama’s Organizing for America campaign has sent e-mails to supporters saying the protests are organized by “insurance companies, special interests, and partisan attack organizations” and are “using scare tactics and spreading smears, trying to incite constituents into lashing out at their representatives and disrupting their events.”

Other left-leaning groups have also begun to mobilize their forces. Doug Lindslay was contacted by MoveOn.org to attend this rally.

DOUG LINDSLAY: I don’t think the shouting itself is all that helpful, but it’s hard for me, when the other side starts shouting, it’s hard for me not to go ahead and do the same.

But if somebody was doing it while we had congress people speaking to us, I would certainly ask that they, you know, be civil, and let — and wait their turn to ask a question and let it be responded to and just, you know, shouting outbursts and things like that, which I’ve seen a lot of on the news in the last week, and it’s very — it’s not good for the democratic process, in my humble opinion.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Diane Lucas is a pediatrician and an activist for a single-payer plan, something not on the table in Washington.

DIANE LUCAS: Basically, we see our mission as one of educating the population. And I’m out with my clipboard signing up people to be on our e-mail list so that they know what’s happening in Colorado and on the federal level.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Back inside, Pelosi was asked about the disruptions and whether the leadership should re-think how it’s selling the party’s health care proposals.

REP. NANCY PELOSI: Members know best how they communicate with their constituents. And it’s up to them to deal with — some do it “Congress on your Corner,” government in your grocery store, town hall meetings.

But there’s been no change in strategy. The plan for August is to have a discussion, to listen carefully to what people are saying, what ideas they may have, to improve the legislation as it affects them, but to be very confident in the principles that we are putting forth.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: It could be a very long, hot month for congressional Democrats.