Specter: Town halls shouldn't dominate process

Lawmakers are debating along party lines whether the outrage expressed at town hall meetings around the country is representative of wide opposition to healthcare reform.

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Democrats, led by one of the party’s newest members, Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.), said Sunday those shouting at town halls represent a minority of Americans. As such, Specter and others said Congress should be careful not to let the events drive substance on the healthcare legislative debate.

“I think we have to bear in mind that although those people need to be heard and have a right to be heard, that they're not really representative of America, in my opinion,” Specter said on ABC's “This Week.”

Specter’s town halls with angry residents received considerable media attention all week, but he said they shouldn’t dominate public debate. Specter also suggested the town halls are a part of a political effort to bring down President Barack Obama.

“We have to be careful here not to let those town meetings dominate the scene and influence what we do on health policy... There's a real effort here to make this the president's 'Waterloo' ... We can't allow these meetings to dominate the political process. That would be destructive of what we need to do,” he said.

Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) earlier this summer said healthcare reform could be Obama’s Waterloo if Republicans could block it.

Democrats all week have tried to take an aggressive stance against the town halls, and even use them against Republicans to try to build support for healthcare reform. Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) last week penned a letter to USA Today that called those disrupting town halls “un-American.”

But some see the angry town halls as helping Republicans by raising doubts about healthcare reform, and adding pressure to centrist Democrats. It is unclear whether centrist Democrats in the House or Senate will be willing to support healthcare reform when they return, given the feedback some are getting from their constituents.

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs, echoing President Barack Obama, said Sunday that town hall outbursts around the country are good for television but not reflective of America.

“I think most of what you’re seeing on TV is, no offense, good TV and that’s about it,” Gibbs said on CBS’s “Face the Nation.”

“I think the vast majority of people are having discussions, whether it’s around their kitchen table or with their congressman in their district or their senator, and they’re . . . trying to get some information and facts to make a good decision,” Gibbs said.

Republicans countered Sunday that the angry outbursts against healthcare reform reflect a majority sentiment.

Interviewed alongside Specter on the same program, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) saluted Specter for his calm response to opponents at his town hall forums last week but rejected the idea that opponents represent a minority of Americans.

“I disagree with Arlen that they’re not representative of the American people. I think they are,” Hatch said. “I've found people just up in arms everywhere I've gone on healthcare.”

Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), speaking on NBC's “Meet The Press,” said he was bothered by the public outbursts but suggested Democrats deserved it.

“I'm troubled any time when we stop having confidence in our government, but we've earned it,” Coburn said. “The tone is based on fear of loss of control of their own government... When people are afraid, they do all sorts of things that they otherwise wouldn't do.”

Former Rep. Dick Armey (R-Texas), who leads the conservative political action group Freedom Works that opposes health reform, said Sunday that the town hall debates simply show “colorful people.”

“We encourage them to go and make their points clearly, assertively and with good manners,” said Armey, who resigned on Friday from DLA Piper. The resignation appeared to come about because the firm was worried people would confuse his work with America Works with the lobbing firm.

Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.), said opponents "are trying to use hatred as a substitute for discussion.”

“When people are paid to work up town hall meetings, it's clear they're not looking for a solution,” Rangel said.

The White House organized three town halls this week, all of which were calm.

Ian Swanson contributed to this story.