Huffpost Politics

Congressional Republicans Face Backlash Back Home

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PAUL RYAN BUDGET MEDICARE CUTS

ORLANDO, Fla. — Freshman Rep. Daniel Webster was armed with a rainbow of graphs and pie charts, ready to make the GOP's case for budget cuts before his own constituents. He was barely a minute into his prepared remarks Tuesday when the yelling started.

The first heckler shouted his doubts about the Florida congressman's promise to do what is right in Washington. From there, the hour-long meeting in Orlando was filled with a constant stream of boos and questioners in the crowd of 300 shouting over each other.

Twelve minutes into his remarks, Webster couldn't be heard over the shouting on both sides. He tried to continue but then stood quietly for a minute smiling, his hands clasped together in front.

The Republican plan to fundamentally restructure Medicare and cut social safety net programs like food stamps and Medicaid has at times been a raucously tough sell as its supporters head home and meet with their constituents, including Democrats organized against them. Even the architect of the plan, Rep. Paul Ryan, has been booed, though many of those attending four meetings Tuesday in his home state of Wisconsin were supportive.

The GOP plan passed by the House this month envisions cutting government deficits by a total $6.2 trillion over the next decade. One of its most contentious provisions calls for eventually transforming Medicare into a voucher-like system in which private insurance plans, not the government, pay medical bills. The plan has drawn scorn from Democrats, including President Barack Obama, who want wealthier Americans to pay higher taxes to help reduce the deficit.

The plan follows a bruising budget battle that nearly produced a government shutdown, and comes as the stakes have been raised on the nation's burgeoning debt. Republicans and Democrats are at odds over must-pass legislation to allow the government to borrow more money, and last week the Standard & Poor's credit agency lowered its long-term outlook for the federal government's fiscal health.

Democratic activists made up much of the chorus of critics at Webster's event and elsewhere. The reactions echoed the larger angry crowds who met Democratic supporters of Obama's health-care overhaul in the last Congress.

Webster defended the Republican plan. "We don't have a tax problem. We have a spending problem," he said to wild applause from supporters.

"We put forth a proposal to cut spending. If we keep things the way it is, you pick your country, which one you want to borrow from," Webster added, displaying a pie chart of countries that hold U.S. debt.

"Is this your new scare tactic?" shouted Maria Reynolds, a 52-year-old real estate agent.

"Be quiet!" shouted a man sitting by her.

"Let the Bush tax cuts expire," shouted James Callahan, 52, a Democratic precinct committee member.

Supporters then began to chant "Let him talk!" Reynolds started chanting, "Let him lie!"

After the meeting, Webster said he welcomed the debate.

"There is nothing wrong with a clash of ideas," he said. "To me, the more policy we can make based on discussions like this, the better the policy is going to be because it reveals the blind spots people have, including me."

Ryan faced more civil crowds in Wisconsin, where some thanked him and expressed support for his dedication on the issues. But he also had his critics.

Sandra Lepisto, 65, a retired elementary school teacher from Racine, said she was concerned about Ryan's Medicare plan. She held a sign that read, "We use up the voucher, and then what?"

"Ryan's numbers don't make sense. If something catastrophic happens and your voucher runs out, what are your options then?" Lepisto said in Kenosha.

Ryan criticized Democrats for attacking his plan, but acknowledged the GOP has responded similarly to Democratic proposals. He said honest discussion is needed.

"Look, scaring seniors comes out every two years, and this time it's the Democrats trying to do it," Ryan said.

Ryan drew standing-room-only crowds at all four of his Tuesday meetings. Two were so full that dozens of constituents, along with press members, were denied entry. The only venue that drew obvious protesters was Kenosha, Wis., where about 80 people stood with signs such as "Ryan Hood Steals From US And Gives To The Rich" and "Paul Ryan Stop Lyin'."

Jim Johnson left the Kenosha meeting early, telling a reporter outside he and his wife were among a small group who booed when Ryan entered. Johnson, 63, said he voted for Ryan in years past but had grown increasingly disgusted.

"He says Medicare is unsustainable. I'm thinking, 'Yeah, it's because medical costs are out of control,'" said Johnson, a retired Navy captain. "Why isn't he attacking it at that level?"

Ryan also was booed last week at a meeting in Elkhorn, Wis. So was freshman Republican Rep. Lou Barletta, at a meeting in his Pennsylvania district.

The Morning Call of Allentown reported that the dispute began with a woman chastising Barletta for his support of the GOP budget plan. Two men shouted at the woman, who was defended a third man. He was removed by police after the trio exchanged angry words.

Shawn Kelly, a spokesman for Barletta, said the woman who interrupted the meeting was president of a Democratic group, and that that meeting got rowdy not because of anger over the budget plan, but because of people who refused to give up the floor.

In upstate New York cheers and a smattering of boos greeted freshman Rep. Chris Gibson, whose town hall meeting Tuesday in Malta, north of Albany, drew about 150 people.

Gibson called the budget plan "pro-growth," "fiscally responsible" and "a baby step toward where we need to go." Joe Seeman, a 51-year-old software developer who organized a protest before the meeting, called it "one big gift to the rich."

GOP Rep. Renee Ellmers, a tea party favorite who won an upset victory last year, tried to reassure voters in her North Carolina district that the Republican plan makes drastic changes necessary to bring the debt under control without harming their expensive federal benefits.

"If you're 55 and older, your Medicare and Social Security will not change," Ellmers told a crowd of about 20 gathered Tuesday in the small town of Spring Hope, about 40 miles east of Raleigh.

The crowd of mostly older people appreciated that message, but seemed skeptical about how it would keep costs down. Ellmers said a combination of tort reform and increased competition among insurance companies would produce savings.

Even some residents who support the Republican plan generally were concerned about its affect on people currently 54 and younger – the ones who would need to use a voucher system rather than Medicare as it now exists.

"Morally, I think society wants to cover those costs, but we're faced with a different financial reality," said Bob Sutter, 63, who works for the North Carolina Peanut Growers Association. "I'm just concerned about my children and my grandchildren being saddled with that burden."

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Ramde reported from Lake Geneva, Wis. AP writers Rik Stevens in Malta, N.Y., Tom Breen in Spring Hope, N.C., and Patrick Walters in Philadelphia contributed to this report.