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Town-hall meetings: facing voter wrath on healthcare

Healthcare forums evoked anger, but there was constructive dialogue, too.

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There has been so much misrepresentation of the healthcare bills that the website has to put up three or four corrections a day.

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"We're seeing an escalation in some really outrageous claims," Mr. Jackson adds, noting that the site has recently seen traffic almost equal to the final months of last year's presidential election.

In biweekly "tele-town halls" this month, Sen. Mark Pryor (D) of Arkansas invites constituents to ask questions about draft legislation or make suggestions about how to improve it.

In an hour-long teleconference with several hundred constituents on Aug. 10, he was challenged to show a basis in the US Constitution for a government overhaul of the healthcare system.

There is a constitutional basis, he says. "The Congress can do a lot of things that deal with the public health; the public welfare, such as the Veterans Administration; the interstate highway system; the safety of our skies. Our Founding Fathers never envisioned the airplane."

But Senator Pryor, a centrist in the Senate, notes that "I can't promise I'll vote for anything yet on final passage, because I'm not sure yet what it will look like."

Learning from angry voices

Stunned by the intensity of opposition at some early town-hall meetings, top Democratic leaders said that the protests represented manufactured angst, ginned up by outside partisan groups, and could be ignored.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate majority leader Harry Reid famously dubbed anti-reform protesters who drowned out opposing views as "simply un-American," in a joint op-ed column in USA Today on Aug. 10.

But critics say that these member-to-voter encounters are also setting off alarm bells that lawmakers dismiss at their peril.

"The changes the president is proposing are so profound and so transformative that it's created a firestorm across the country," says G. Terry Madonna, a political scientist and pollster at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa. "Most of these members have never witnessed an intensity level like this before."

He notes that many of the questions shouted out at these town meetings go beyond healthcare to other big-government issues, such as the bailout of investment bankers and auto companies, the $787 billion stimulus plan, huge deficits, and a cap-and-trade "tax" on energy.

"What we're seeing now is that healthcare has become the microcosm of these bigger changes. It has stirred up a genuine populist anger among a whole number of voters," he adds.