Republican Rep. Lou Barletta of Pennsylvania talks to voters before a town… (Michael Kubel, The Morning…)
Reporting from Hillsborough, N.H. — Standing in a brightly lit bingo hall off a wooded road, a space that doubles as the dining room for Danny's Friday night fish fry, Republican Rep. Charles Bass should have felt a long way from the pressure-cooker of budget politics in Washington.
But as he opened a town hall meeting here last week, it was clear the pressure had followed him to American Legion Post No. 59.
What is his rationale for wanting to change Medicare to a voucher system, questioners demanded to know. How is this going to lower premiums? If the idea is to cut the deficit, why does the Republican budget plan offer tax breaks for the wealthy?
Congress is on its first recess since Republican leaders unveiled a plan to end the federal deficit by dramatically changing Medicare, cutting other government programs and reducing taxes. With members of the House returning home to meet with constituents, politicians have been anxiously looking for signs of trouble.
On both sides, strategists remember that nearly two years ago, town hall meetings revealed the first stirrings of a conservative rebellion against President Obama's healthcare plan. That uprising eventually helped sweep a GOP majority into control of the House.
The signs over the last week have been mixed. Republicans heard their core supporters urging them to take strong stands and hold fast on the next big budget fight — the debate over raising the federal debt limit.
In Illinois, freshman Rep. Adam Kinzinger was cheered for his hard-line stance on that debate. "If it came to me to raise it today, I would vote no," he told a senior center 50 miles south of Chicago.
But in many places, Democrats turned out to express their opposition, much as Republicans had done in the healthcare debate. In a Pennsylvania coal town, a man outraged by the GOP budget plan was escorted out of a town hall by police. In Wisconsin, Rep. Paul D. Ryan, the architect of the Republican plan, was booed in his own district as he outlined the proposal.
Here in Hillsborough, a bedroom community in a state known for a fiscally conservative streak, Bass painted a doomsday picture, saying the country would be "basically ruined" if it did not curb the growth of government. But a group of gray-haired constituents — most later identified themselves as Democrats — quickly pushed him back on his heels. He struggled to defend the GOP plan vigorously, once mischaracterizing a key element. By the time he left, he seemed less than wedded to the details.
"If there are certain facets of the budget that are manifestly unpopular, I think that should be taken into consideration, but it's too soon," he said. "This is the beginning of a long conversation."
Ryan's plan would cut trillions from the budget over the next decade while turning Medicare into a voucher system and Medicaid into block grants for the states. It calls for lower tax rates for the wealthiest Americans and corporations. The plan was approved by a near-unanimous vote of House Republicans before lawmakers returned home for their two-week spring recess.
Democrats hope that vote will prove costly for the GOP, particularly for the 61 Republicans from districts Obama won in 2008. For those Republicans, their homework for the break was urgent: define the Ryan plan before Democrats did it for them.
The opposition did not intend to make it easy. As Obama blasted the plan on a campaign-style swing last week, Democratic committees ran radio ads targeting vulnerable Republicans, including Bass, who even in the 2010 GOP sweep, won his seat by just 3,550 votes.
For their part, some Republicans came armed with choreographed presentations on the nation's ballooning deficit, graphs showing the escalating debt or a slide show explaining the role of entitlements in the nation's fiscal woes.
Their arguments received a boost last week from the Standard & Poor's rating agency, which issued a gloomy report on the outlook for the U.S. credit rating.
Republicans repeatedly sought to reassure older voters that their benefits would not be touched — the plan would not kick in for 10 years and would not affect people 55 and older. Some voters found that to be of little solace.
Shortly after freshman Republican Rep. Lou Barletta fired up his slide show in an aging pocket of his Democratic-leaning eastern Pennsylvania district, 64-year-old Linda Christman rose and interrupted him.
"You seem to think that because I'm not affected, I won't care if my niece, my grandson, my child is affected. I do care," she said. "You said nothing in the campaign about 'I'm going to change Medicare.' Now you voted for a plan that will destroy Medicare."
"I won't destroy Medicare," Barletta replied. "Medicare is going to be destroyed by itself."
Christman talked over the congressman, telling him to pay for Medicare by taxing the wealthy.
A similar argument broke out among voters at a knitting circle in the Southern California district of Rep. Mary Bono Mack (R-Palm Springs).