Hostile crowds confront Democrats at healthcare sessions

Reception reflects challenge facing party’s priority

Senator Arlen Specter listened to a critic of the healthcare proposal yesterday at a forum in Lebanon, Pa. One shouting participant left the room after security guards approached him. Senator Arlen Specter listened to a critic of the healthcare proposal yesterday at a forum in Lebanon, Pa. One shouting participant left the room after security guards approached him. (Bradley C Bower/Associated Press)
By Erica Werner
Associated Press / August 12, 2009

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LEBANON, Pa. - Jeers and taunts drowned out Democrats calling for a healthcare overhaul at town halls yesterday, and one lawmaker said a swastika was spray-painted at his office as debate turned to noisy confrontation over President Obama’s plan.

“One day God will stand before you and judge you!’’ one man shouted at Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania before security guards approached and he left the room.

“If they don’t let us vent our frustrations out, they will have a revolution,’’ Mary Ann Fieser of Hillsboro, Mo., told Senator Claire McCaskill at her Missouri forum.

McCaskill admonished the rowdy crowd of about 1,500. “I don’t understand this rudeness,’’ she said. “I honestly don’t get it.’’

The bitter sessions underscored the challenge for the administration as it tries to win over an increasingly skeptical public on the costly and far-reaching task of revamping the nation’s healthcare system.

Specter, a longtime Republican who turned Democrat this spring, faced hostile questions, taunts, and jeers as he gamely tried to explain his positions. At a crowded community college, speaker after speaker accused him of trampling on their constitutional rights, adding to the federal deficit, or allowing government bureaucrats to take over healthcare.

Specter explained repeatedly that there is no single Senate bill yet for him to talk about, because the Finance Committee hasn’t finished writing one. That explanation was usually met by boos from the crowd. Many had read portions of a bill passed by three committees in the House and tried to get Specter to respond to that.

One woman tried to make it personal for Specter, who has been treated for cancer, alleging that the Democrats’ plan would not provide care to a man in his 70s with cancer. “You’re here because of the plan we have now,’’ she said.

Specter showed some heat at that. “Well, you’re just not right,’’ he said. He called her claim a “vicious, malicious’’ rumor.

Specter said that in a long life in politics he had not seen anything like what he witnessed yesterday and at a town hall last weekend that turned even uglier. “There is more anger in America today than at any time I can remember,’’ he said.

Many in the crowd said they came of their own accord, and several told Specter they objected to Democrats characterizing them as mobs or organized opposition shipped in by lobbyists or the Republican Party. National conservative groups are encouraging people to attend town halls, but liberal groups are doing the same - with less apparent success. Several in the crowd wore T-shirts proclaiming: “Proud Member of the Mob.’’

In Georgia yesterday morning, staffers found a large, spray-painted swastika on a sign outside the office of a congressman who was involved in a contentious argument over healthcare at a recent community meeting.

Democrat David Scott, who is black, said the swastika is the latest example of what he believes is an increasingly hateful and racist debate over reforming healthcare. The Atlanta lawmaker said he also has received mail in recent days that used the N-word.

Scott said local police were notified along with the FBI, the Secret Service, and US Capitol Police, who have warned lawmakers about potential threats stemming from the increasingly emotional debate over healthcare reform.

“We have got to make sure that the symbol of the swastika does not win, that the racial hatred that’s bubbling up does not win this debate,’’ Scott said in a telephone interview. “That’s what is bubbling up with all of this. There’s so much hatred out there for President Obama.’’