By Nicole Gaudiano, Free Press Washington Writer
WASHINGTON — Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., plans three town hall meetings on health care legislation this month, even as other public meetings on the topic erupt into red-faced shouting matches nationwide.
Two of Sanders’ meetings will be held Saturday in Rutland and Arlington, and one will be held Aug. 23 in Peacham. Already, the Vermont Tea Party movement, which opposes “out of control” government spending, is targeting Saturday’s meetings, urging people on its Web site to “use your healthy voice, and ask good questions.”
The site also asks the group’s conservative followers to refrain from profanity or physical violence. Artist Norman Rockwell may not have envisioned such behavior when he depicted a 1943 Arlington town hall meeting in his famous oil on canvas, “Freedom of Speech,” but it’s become increasingly likely as partisans square off.
Sanders has held hundreds of meetings over the years. Asked whether he might cancel, Sanders said that is “not my style.”
“I enjoy doing it, that’s what I do and that’s what I think an elected official should do,” he said during an interview. “I will simply demand that people be respectful of everybody’s point of view. ... Nobody has the right to disrupt meetings and prevent other people from voicing an opinion.”
In recent weeks, lawmakers have been protested, booed, shouted down and threatened by health-care reform opponents. Some lawmakers have replaced in-person town hall forums with telephone town halls. Others have limited attendance or increased security at the events. Sanders’ staff would not discuss security but said they expect high attendance.
Democratic congressional leaders, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, accuse Republican activists of hijacking the town-hall meetings and spreading misinformation about the health-care legislation.
Last week, former GOP vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin said President Barack Obama wants to create a “death panel” that could deny care to the elderly and disabled such as Palin’s youngest son, who has Down syndrome. She was apparently referring to a proposal that would allow Medicare to reimburse seniors who seek counseling on end-of-life issues.
Conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh’s Web site featured the image of an Obama health care logo morphing into a swastika.
Such assertions are apparently having an effect.
Sanders said constituents called his office last week asking why Obama wants to kill senior citizens with his health-care plan, a suggestion he said is fueled by “right-wing extremists.”
The divisiveness “makes it hard to have what we should be having as a nation, (which) is a serious debate on an enormously important issue,” he said.
Sanders said he expects respectful discourse at his meeting on health care and other issues.
“I know that there are many people who are not right-wing extremists who have legitimate questions, as they should,” he said. “This is a very important issue, and I want to hear those concerns.”
Opponents of health-care legislation say it’s not fair to label them extremists.
“The American people deserve answers to basic questions about whether the Democrats’ plan will increase health-care costs, add to the deficit, increase taxes on middle-class families and small businesses, put government between doctors and patients (and) force anyone to lose their current health coverage,” House Minority Leader John Boehner of Ohio said in a statement earlier this week.
Vermont Tea Party state coordinator Jon Wallace acknowledged “it’s sad” that he has to encourage people not to be profane or physical at a public meeting. But he said frustration with government has been building for years.
“I think people need to be passionate but respectful,” he said. “I would challenge Bernie to answer the questions that are asked directly, to not deflect nor misdirect questions, because that’s what will anger people.”
Conservative Vermont radio host Paul Beaudry said that he expects the atmosphere to be “pretty tense” at Sanders’ meetings.
“We’re just predicting that he’s going to have some of his union thugs at the front door and he’s not going to let us speak, and if we do disagree, he’s going to belittle us,” he said.
Beaudry said he is encouraging civility at the meetings and expects people to be well-behaved but to “speak their piece.” He says government shouldn’t be involved in providing health care because the Constitution is silent on the matter.
“If the government would just get the heck out of it, things would be a lot more affordable,” he said.
Vermont’s two other congressional lawmakers won’t hold town meetings during the August recess, but they’ll have other public events.
Democratic Rep. Peter Welch plans to spend the recess traveling the state, holding “Congress in Your Community” events at small, public locations and visiting fairs, field days, country stores, downtowns and rotary clubs, said his spokesman, Paul Heintz.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, another Democrat, said he no longer holds town halls because it’s more effective to meet informally with constituents at diners, grocery stores and the like.
He said he hears repeatedly from constituents who have lost a job or can’t afford insurance and are “terrified” of getting sick.
Leahy called the loud discord at town halls “unfortunate” and said he worries that many of the concerns about health care legislation are based on “misinformation.” Lawmakers are continuing to craft the legislation during the recess, and Leahy said he looks forward to reviewing specific proposals.
He said people should be more interested in the real substance of the health-care proposals and less about “death panels” or questions about whether Obama was born in Kenya.
“There’s too many important things going on to listen to that nonsense,” he said. “I want to listen to things that really affect people.”
Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., will host three “town meetings” on health care over the next 10 days. The schedule:
• 9:30 A.M.: Unitarian Universalist Church, 117 West St., Rutland
• 12:30 P.M.: The Pavilion at the Arlington Recreation Park, 148 Rec Park Road, Arlington.
• 5:30 P.M.: Congregational Church, 56 Church St., Peacham.