Freshmen brace for voters’ reactions back home during recess

Many freshman members are facing constituents in town halls back in their districts this week after casting one of the biggest votes of their young careers – to raise the debt ceiling.

Some freshmen chose to get it out of the way early by starting their town halls last week. “I didn’t want to wait,” Rep. Tim Griffin (R-Ark.) said. “I wanted to do as many as I could while things were fresh in people’s minds. I wanted to come back and just, boom, have a bunch of them.”

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Griffin hosted two town halls last Thursday and has 11 more planned through the rest of August. This week GOP Reps. Mo Brooks (Ala.), Steve Womack (Ark.), Alan Nunnelee (Miss.), Bill Flores (Texas), Steve Pearce (N.M.) and Paul Gosar (Ariz.), among others, will begin holding their own events.

Griffin described the ones he’s held so far as “civil and appreciative,” but not all members have experienced the same friendly reception.

Rep. Rich Nugent (R-Fla.) admitted to the 80-person crowd in Brooksville, Fla., last Thursday that the vote “stuck in his throat,” according to the St. Petersburg Times.


A constituent, Bill Tompkins, told Nugent that “I think the (Republican) Party is losing its convictions, the sense of what the party is supposed to be about,” according to the Times. “We're compromising too much. I take your vote as a compromise. If we're going to cut the budget, cut the budget, don't just reduce the size of the increases.”

Nugent said he understood and changed the subject to the vote on a balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution required by the deal.

Still other members who hosted events last week said they were surprised by the lack of comment from constituents about the debt-ceiling vote.

“I was shocked. Although I talked a lot about the debt ceiling, there wasn’t a lot of talk about the debt ceiling [from constituents],” Griffin said. “I thought that would dominate the discussions and it just didn’t … [People asked about] jobs, taxes and our debt.”


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Jobs seemed to be the dominant issue. A Gallup poll last month showed that 27 percent of voters named unemployment and jobs as the most important problem facing the United States.

The House Democrats’ recess packet emphasized jobs and protecting entitlements.

Freshman Rep. Frederica Wilson (D-Fla.) will host an as-yet-unscheduled town hall for seniors on entitlements and a job fair for her district.

“I have a Medicare town hall with a senior citizen group so that they know what will happen with Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security with the debt deal that we made,” Wilson said.

“They’re concerned about it, they’ve heard rumors and gossip … and they’re concerned about getting their [Social Security] check that they live on."

Wilson’s job fair will be held Aug. 23 and includes 73 companies offering more than 3,000 jobs for south Floridians.

“It’s a huge job fair,” Wilson said. “[Democrats] just know the suffering of this nation and the struggling in the nation because so many people have lost their jobs and so many people are underemployed.”

Several other members of the Congressional Black Caucus also are holding job fairs in their districts during August as part of a “For the People” jobs initiative.

GOP freshman members also agree that jobs are an important issue.

Rep. Jeff Denham (R-Calif.) held a town hall last Thursday in Modesto, Calif., that was attended by about 150 people. The Modesto Bee called the crowd "largely frustrated.”

Denham’s office said his focus was jobs because the unemployment rate reached 17.2 percent in parts of his district.

But other members hosting events last week were asked about entitlements, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) reauthorization, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations and healthcare — most of which have the underlying theme of jobs.

Some of those who attended GOP Rep. Rick Berg’s town hall in western North Dakota were concerned about EPA “overregulation.”

“North Dakotans are clearly frustrated with Washington’s one-size-fits-none regulations that burden small businesses and hinder job creation,” Berg said. “If we are truly committed to creating jobs, breaking our dependence on foreign oil and investing in the abundant natural resources states like North Dakota offer, it’s time to rein in the EPA and empower states to make decisions that will best benefit their unique needs.”

Several Republicans scheduled town halls on healthcare this week, perhaps because repealing the healthcare reform law was seen as one reason for their campaign success in 2010. Reps. Scott Rigell (Va.), Phil Gingrey (Ga.), Phil Roe (Tenn.) and Larry Bucshon (Ind.) will hold a healthcare town hall together on Tuesday.

Even though Griffin did not have a specific topic for his town hall, he said he has been talking about healthcare a lot.

“Inevitably in an hour and a half you’re going to get healthcare, you’re going to get debt, you’re going to get all these different things discussed,” Griffin said. “My position is you can’t talk about the debt unless you talk about healthcare, that’s just a fact. Because the rising cost of healthcare and Medicare and Medicaid are two of the big drivers of our debt and if we don’t reform them they are going to go bankrupt.”

On the other hand, Wilson said one reason for the Affordable Healthcare Act was job creation.

“I’m very interested in the high school class graduating in 2011, as a past principal … I’m recommending that these children enter the healthcare business -- whether it’s to be an orderly all the way up to being a physician -- because those are where the jobs are. … If the Republicans are dead-set about repealing the healthcare legislation, [the kids] won’t have any field to look forward to,” Wilson said.

In news reports about the town halls that have been heard, “frustration” was often used to describe the attendees, whether conservative or liberal.

At a town hall hosted by Rep. Frank Guinta (R-N.H.) and attended by more than 100 people last Thursday in Hooksett, N.H., the Concord Monitor applauded constituents who said the debt deal cut too little and also those who said cuts shouldn't be borne by seniors and the poor.

Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) had a mostly liberal audience at his Denver town hall, according to The Denver Post. His spokesman, Michael Amodeo, told The Hill that topics included “the debt ceiling, jobs, tax reform, the FAA shutdown and education.”

“Folks told us they’re frustrated with Washington’s inability to work together and get things done — a frustration that Sen. Bennet shares,” he said.

-- Elise Viebeck contributed to this report.

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