Republicans try to tame their rowdy town halls

House Republicans facing angry crowds back in their districts are using a variety of strategies to lower the temperature.

With constituents upset about President Trump’s policies and the stalled GOP attempt to repeal and replace ObamaCare, lawmakers are trying to avoid volatile confrontations during this month’s two-week recess.  

Many are turning to telephone town halls where constituents dial in, while others are livestreaming events on their Facebook pages to avoid direct interactions that could go viral online. 

Other lawmakers are opting to meet with small groups of constituents to avoid the circus atmosphere of large crowds.

{mosads}Rep. Dave Reichert (R-Wash.), for instance, plans to hold about 50 meetings and events to speak with more than 200 constituents rather than hold town halls with larger crowds, according to his office. The former sheriff, who voted for the GOP’s healthcare bill in the House Ways and Means Committee, is sticking with that plan despite pressure from local left-leaning groups to hold a traditional town hall.

“Congressman Reichert believes this is the best way to maintain open communication with his constituents and have productive conversations,” spokeswoman Breanna Deutsch said. 

In Michigan, GOP Rep. Mike Bishop is holding six “town hall listening sessions” of small groups limited to about two dozen people, according to the Detroit Free Press. Constituents had to sign up for the events on a first-come, first-serve basis, and the slots quickly filled up.

The office of Rep. Peter Roskam (R-Ill.), who represents a district won by Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton that Democrats are hoping to flip in 2018, said he “maintains one of the busiest district schedules of any member of Congress” with office meetings, site visits, speaking engagements, roundtable discussions and telephone town halls.

Roskam spokesman David Pasch downplayed the effectiveness of in-person town halls, saying that “large, unstructured events tend to devolve into shouting matches.” 

Rep. Ryan Costello (R-Pa.), who voted for the ObamaCare repeal-and-replace bill in the House Energy and Commerce Committee, is one of the few vulnerable Republicans to hold a town hall meeting during this month’s recess. But his only scheduled in-person town hall advised attendees that video would be prohibited due to rules of the courthouse where it was held, drawing ire from the American Civil Liberties Union.

Costello convinced the judge in charge of the courthouse to allow a limited video of the full town hall proceedings, which his office posted on YouTube five days later. His only other announced town hall, scheduled for April 21, will be conducted over the phone. 

Republicans who are holding town hall meetings are frequently taking additional precautions to impose order and discourage the most aggressive protesters. Many are banning signs and requiring people to sign up for tickets ahead of time to ensure they are constituents.

Rep. Mike Coffman (R-Colo.) held a town hall on Wednesday that required tickets for entry, prohibited large signs and used a lottery system for questions, according to the Denver Post. 

Rep. Leonard Lance (R-N.J.), meanwhile, was flanked onstage by two police officers at a town hall meeting this week to ensure security. 

The GOP lawmakers who do brave the crowds often seek to find some common ground with left-leaning constituents. They have at times offered up restrained criticism of Trump, like saying he should release his tax returns. 

Rep. Tom McClintock (R-Calif.), while largely supportive of Trump, received a standing ovation at a town hall when he criticized the president for not getting congressional approval for last week’s missile strike in Syria.

And Coffman, a centrist who is one of Democrats’ top targets in 2018, became the first Republican lawmaker to call for White House press secretary Sean Spicer’s resignation.

When asked about Spicer’s botched comparison of Nazi leader Adolf Hitler to Syrian President Bashar Assad on the use of chemical weapons, Coffman said the press secretary made “a terrible mistake” and “needs to go.”

“I just don’t think he’s serving the president well,” Coffman said. 

But even attempts to connect with left-leaning constituents and scale back the crowds haven’t prevented tense exchanges. 

Costello tried to keep the atmosphere light by playfully highlighting a “Nevertheless she persisted” shirt and a “Resist” pin worn by two constituents.

Still, a woman named Jessica told Costello that she needs health insurance to ensure her medication for an unspecified disease costs $35 per month, instead of $780 per month.

If Costello voted for a GOP healthcare bill that eliminates ObamaCare’s protections for people with preexisting conditions, she said, “Between 10 and 21 days later, I will be dead. And I’d like to know if you’re going to come to my funeral.”

Costello said he has “deep concerns” about eliminating a provision of ObamaCare known as community rating that prevents insurers from charging higher premiums to people with pre-existing conditions.

“I’d like to come to your birthday,” he told his constituent with a smile. 

The people who attended the small “listening sessions” with Bishop didn’t mince words, either.

“I’m very disappointed in you, Michael Bishop. You’ve voted with Trump 100 percent of the time. You voted to repeal the Affordable Care Act,” one woman told him, according to the Detroit Free Press. “If you’re not interested in representing all of us, we’ll help you out of your job in 2018.” 

Lance, a centrist who voted for the GOP’s repeal-and-replace bill in committee but later said he’d oppose it on the floor, said it’s important to keep holding town halls despite the conflict they can create.

“I learn from town hall meetings regardless of whether the audience is supportive of President Trump or not. I try to reach out to all of my constituents, including those constituents who may never have voted for me because I think it’s important to represent everybody in the district,” Lance said afterward.

“I think we have an obligation in political life to try to engage our constituents as much as possible.” 

Scott Wong contributed from Flanders, N.J. 

Tags Dave Reichert Hillary Clinton

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