Fight Harder, Voters Telling Congressmen

Categories: The New York Times

By Jennifer Steinhauer

VIRGINIA BEACH — Taking in the highly unfavorable view most Americans have about Congress right now, it might be assumed that what voters seek is a lowered volume, thoughtful bipartisanship and legislative compromise. But in meetings with voters across the country this week, many members of Congress are seeing a mirror of the House floor.
As lawmakers meet with voters back home in their districts, the message is often not “Can’t we all just get along?” but rather a push to get back into the ring and fight harder, as they face the most partisan and intransigent factions of both parties.In middle school auditoriums, retirement centers, recital halls and other such venues, angry constituents are deriding their representatives for the spectacle of the past month over the raising of the debt ceiling.But in many cases, the anger is less about the dissension that brought the nation to the edge of default than frustration with both Democrats — including President Obama — and Republicans that their side had not been tough enough.“I sometimes wonder,” said John Joslin, 70, a Democrat reflecting on Mr. Obama during a town hall-style meeting on Tuesday with Representative Betty McCollum, Democrat of Minnesota, “Whose side is he on? He’s almost Republican. He’s just rolled over and rolled over and rolled over, and I hope that you, as a progressive, can somehow add some steel to his blood.”Preston Davis, 48, of Payson, lamented at a town hall meeting in Utah with Republican Representative Jason Chaffetz, “Republicans chasing Democrats to the left, and I hate it when the party deserts me.
”So far, the post debt-debate gatherings have neither the urgency nor the toxicity of those from the summer of 2009, when angry voters and interest groups came out slugging over health care. But what members — with their eyes turned both to the new committee charged with deficit reduction recommendations and the 2012 campaign — are finding back home suggests that tough times lie ahead in Washington.
Representative Tom Graves, Republican of Georgia, told an audience of about 100 in Fort Oglethorpe this week that he did not vote for a final deal to increase the debt ceiling, because: “I believe compromises are what got us into this mess in the first place. You can’t compromise your way out of it.” He was met with thunderous applause.
Town hall-style meetings are an imperfect arbiter of voter sentiment. While the meetings draw plenty of local constituents, they are also a magnet for activists, as Democrats and Republican have learned the importance of packing the halls with supporters.But as the raucous meetings in the summer of 2009 demonstrated, the tone of the meetings tends to frame the terms of the debate.It is a reality that Representative Eric Cantor, the majority leader, made note of in a call with his members this week.“
When we are out with constituents who are voicing anger frustration and fear,” Mr. Cantor said, according to transcripts, “in this economy, that’s understandable. We need to try to listen and address their concerns and show that we have acted and have a handle on the situation. We are going to continue to take our case to Democrats and the president.”
Members can often test their crowd with particular lines or references to bills. At a meeting here in Virginia Beach on Tuesday night with several lawmakers invited by the district’s Republican congressman, Scott Rigell, members spoke of a balanced budget amendment — something many Republicans in Congress are seeking as part of any long-term deficit reduction deal — which sent the audience to its feet.In her meeting in St. Paul, Ms. McCollum tried to throw her audience some liberal red meat, even while preaching civility to those who heckled a man for advocating higher tax rates for high earners. “Since the elections last fall,” she said, “the Republican Tea Party has forced our country into one manufactured crisis after another.”
While most members got broad support from those who attend their meetings — and are not there simply to protest — others saw significant push back. “What we’re going through right now doesn’t bother me,” said Representative Joe Walsh of Illinois, as he addressed 50 people in DeKalb on Wednesday night. The audience snorted in mocking laughter.Mr. Walsh, who has been an outspoken critic of the debt ceiling deal and who is under fire after The Chicago Sun-Times reported that he owed thousands of dollars in child support, continued: “I think this is good for this country because the country has finally woken up and is finally going to get serious about big problems. It’s like it’s asleep 40, 50 years and woke up and ‘My God, the government has all these problems.’ I think all this wrestling right now is good. I think we’re finally taking them serious.”
(Concerning his child-support debts, Mr. Walsh said: “We’re trying to get this taken care of legally. I can’t and won’t talk about this publicly. This is a personal matter near and dear to me, it involves me, it involves my kids, it involves my family. I’m not going to publicly talk about that.”)
There is clear evidence that some liberal groups are stoking the partisan fires at meetings. A group called the American Dream Movement has been protesting outside meetings — a small group formed here Tuesday night, and handed out buttons — and other groups have also sent protesters or hostile questioners to meetings.
But the importance of adhering to ideological orthodoxy within the legislative process is often reinforced by members when they have a supportive crowd. First elected to the House in 2008, Mr. Chaffetz then defeated a six-term Republican incumbent, former Representative Chris Cannon. “If you want different results, you have to elect different people,” Mr. Chaffetz told his audience in American Fork. Noting that in the 2008 campaign, fellow Republicans campaigned against him, he said with glee: “I love that; bring it on.” 
Wild applause.
Reporting was contributed by Robbie Brown from Georgia, Christina Capecchi from Minnesota, Mark Guarino from Illinois and Martin Stolz from Utah.   

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