Home for Easter Town Halls, GOP Faces Backlash Over Budget Plan
HILLSBOROUGH, N.H. — Standing in a brightly lit bingo hall, GOP 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 in Hillsborough, N.H., 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. 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 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 Barack Obama's health care plan.
But the signs in the past week have been mixed.
Some Republicans heard core supporters urging them to hold fast on the next big budget fight — the debate over raising the federal debt limit.
But in many places, Demo-crats turned out to express opposition, much as Republicans did in the health care debate. In Pennsylvania, one man was escorted out of a town hall by police. In Wisconsin, Rep. Paul 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 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.
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-Calif.
"Why can't people learn to take care of each other?" asked Beverly Walker, a 61-year old Republican. "There's a mentality that our government owes us."
But other knitters said they were alarmed by the notion the next generation may have to shop for insurance with an $8,000 voucher, the Democratic description of Ryan's plan. Some were openly skeptical of GOP promises that current seniors would be protected.
"I don't trust these guys," said Barbara Walden, 77.
The GOP plan to reduce tax rates for the highest-paid Americans from 35 percent to 25 percent was a problem for some GOP lawmakers. At a town hall in Milton, Wis., opponents booed Ryan as he explained his rationale for lowering taxes for the wealthy. (The scene is on the website ThinkProgress.)
Bass flatly denied the proposal would cut taxes on wealthy individuals and saying incorrectly that the reduction applied only to corporations.
He later told a reporter he wasn't sure exactly what the budget resolution would do: "It's unclear to me whether it's a corporate tax cut or a personal tax cut," he said, suggesting he might not support a lowering of the individual rate.