Politics Group Therapy and Chastened Lawmakers at Raucous Town Halls

18:38  20 april  2017
18:38  20 april  2017 Source:   The New York Times

Lawmakers try to keep town halls from getting out of control

  Lawmakers try to keep town halls from getting out of control It was one of the most exclusive tickets in town: Only 800 were made available, and those lucky enough to score one had to show photo ID at the gate, where they were issued a wristband and a number. No signs bigger than a sheet of notebook paper were allowed, so as not to obscure anyone's view.The rules weren't for a rock concert but for a town hall meeting Wednesday evening between Republican Rep. Mike Coffman and his suburban Denver constituents.Town halls have become a risky proposition for GOP members of Congress since President Donald Trump's election.

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Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona held an event last week in Mesa. He is one of two Republicans seen as vulnerable in the 2018 midterm elections. © Ralph Freso/Getty Images Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona held an event last week in Mesa. He is one of two Republicans seen as vulnerable in the 2018 midterm elections.

WASHINGTON — There is no special art to the congressional recess town hall. But there is little doubt when one is going off the rails.

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So perhaps it should surprise no one that so many lawmakers have chosen to avoid such outings with constituents during this two-week break from an institution most Americans disdain. There can be no viral video headaches from an event that never happened.

Still, among those adventurous enough to take on all comers, the forums have often been telling. Here is what we’ve learned, or relearned, during the recess so far:

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× Republican lawmakers faced down angry voters during a week of raucous town halls . Leonard Lance faced a raucous , record town - hall crowd in his New Jersey district this week, where he was constantly told that he needed to "do your job."

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Some Republicans have bigger targets on their backs. And know it.

Few Republican senators need to sweat much before the midterm elections next year. But in a party now defined by President Trump, and all the attendant volatility that promises, some must proceed cautiously.

At the moment, only two Senate Republicans are viewed as potentially vulnerable: Dean Heller of Nevada and Jeff Flake of Arizona. Both faced voters this month.

Mr. Heller plainly does not relish the town-hall format: He told a conservative group last week that the events were “one of those boxes you gotta check,” according to audio obtained by The Nevada Independent. And at a gathering on Monday in Reno, Mr. Heller’s genial sidestepping was greeted at times with chants of “Answer the question!”

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On some contentious issues, like federal funding for Planned Parenthood, he seemed caught between a desire to placate attendees — in a state Hillary Clinton carried last year — and a need to reconcile his past positions. At one point, he said he would “protect Planned Parenthood,” before hedging. (Facing pressure from the right, his office further clarified his remarks afterward.)

The welcome for Mr. Flake, who was also pressed on Planned Parenthood funding during a town hall in Mesa, Ariz., was not much warmer. “You work for us!” attendees shouted repeatedly.

If Mr. Trump’s approval ratings continue to sag, the two may become even less reticent about bucking the president.

Constituents at a town-hall-style meeting with Senator Dean Heller and Representative Mark Amodei, Republicans of Nevada, in Reno on Monday. © David Calvert/Getty Images Constituents at a town-hall-style meeting with Senator Dean Heller and Representative Mark Amodei, Republicans of Nevada, in Reno on Monday.

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Most lawmakers adopt a kind of Hippocratic oath while answering questions in their districts: Do no harm. Boring is good. Commit to nothing you cannot guarantee.

Representative Kevin Cramer, Republican of North Dakota, has a tendency to go another way. Long considered a leading candidate to challenge Senator Heidi Heitkamp — one of several Democrats up for re-election next year in states that Mr. Trump won easily — Mr. Cramer has spent part of the recess reminding voters, and party leaders, that he does not care much for self-filtering.

In a local radio interview, he defended a widely condemned analogy from Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, comparing Hitler and President Bashar al-Assad of Syria. “It’s not without some validity,” Mr. Cramer said.

According to a CNN report last week, Republican officials have begun privately arguing against a run by Mr. Cramer. Mr. Cramer has said that Republicans in Washington do not understand his state. “I do say what’s on my mind,” he said in an interview, adding that no one at any level of Republican leadership had expressed any concerns to him.

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He noted that he interacted with voters far more often than many colleagues do. “I expose myself a lot,” he said. “That’s the best way I can put it.”

Democrats are still mad, and it’s not just about health care.

Though the last recess included no shortage of outrage over the president’s Twitter posts, his team’s ties to Russia and other assorted controversies, one topic dominated: health care.

Several weeks later, after the Republican health care bill’s failure in the House, the national focus has become more diffuse. Health care remains top of mind, and supporters of Planned Parenthood made their presence known at several events. But other issues, from climate change to Mr. Trump’s tax returns, often found their way into the mix.

For Democrats, who say that momentum from the last recess helped defend the Affordable Care Act against dismantling upon their return, there is some risk in dividing the party’s focus, scrapping with Mr. Trump and other Republicans on multiple fronts.

Still, Democratic lawmakers and activists insist they can walk and chew gum at the same time.

Sometimes, the town halls can resemble group therapy.

In 2009, Representative Joe Wilson, Republican of South Carolina, shot to national prominence by shouting “You lie!” at President Barack Obama during a presidential address to Congress.

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Since then, Mr. Wilson has generally coasted to re-election, winning last year by more than 24 points. When Democrats dream of retaking the House, Mr. Wilson’s seat is nowhere near their radar.

And yet, voters appeared to achieve a sort of catharsis at his event last week, drowning him out at one point by hollering those two familiar words: “You lie!”

The electoral upside of such a display is probably limited. But the moment, which ricocheted across social media, seemed to galvanize the progressive base.

Clips from a session with Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas, a vocal Trump supporter, had a similar effect. The senator was booed heavily as he defended Mr. Trump’s refusal to release his tax returns. “As far as I’m aware, the president says he’s still under audit,” Mr. Cotton said, to jeers.

Lawmakers returning to Washington might be even more chastened.

Silver linings have not been entirely out of sight for Republicans. While voter fury remains high, most members avoided memorable stumbles over the recess. Two closely watched special elections for House seats in Kansas and Georgia provided signs of renewed hope for Democrats, but Republicans averted disaster in both cases.

Still, the combination of anger at home and uncertainty about the national political climate as Mr. Trump churns toward the end of his first 100 days could make lawmakers particularly risk-averse as they return from recess.

If some were already unwilling to commit to the health care overhaul pushed by Mr. Trump, in part because of the anger they faced in their districts, there is little reason to believe their appetite for local blowback has increased on other explosive issues. And when even long-safe Republican districts are being contested aggressively, some members who have worried little about job security may be inclined to tread lightly.

Some reliable party loyalists, like Senator Joni Ernst of Iowa, have begun questioning the president a bit more pointedly, even talking about his “flaws.” (Ms. Ernst chafed this week at Mr. Trump’s frequent trips to Florida, saying she wished he spent more time in Washington.)

These dynamics could affect the behavior of some Democrats, too, as their voters increasingly demand full obstruction of Mr. Trump as the path to avoiding a meaningful primary challenge.

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'Why is it your right to take away my right to choose?': Teenager slams top Republican senator during testy town hall .
&nbsp;A 16-year-old girl from Tucson slammed Arizona Republican senator Jeff Flake during a town hall on Thursday, grilling him over his support for a law that will give states the rightA 16-year-old girl from Tucson slammed Arizona Republican senator Jeff Flake during a town hall on Thursday, grilling him over his support for a law that will give states the right to deny Title X funds to family-planning centers that also provide abortions, like Planned Parenthood.

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