Republicans avoid town halls after health care votes

WASHINGTON — Reps. Leonard Lance of New Jersey and Ryan Costello of Pennsylvania appear to be the only swing-district Republicans who voted for their party’s bill to replace Obamacare who will directly face constituents over the April recess, according to a USA TODAY analysis of scheduled town halls compiled by Townhallproject.com.

Fourteen Republicans from competitive congressional districts sit on the three congressional committees that voted last month for their party’s controversial health care plan before GOP leaders pulled the bill from the House floor because it lacked support to pass. The lack of town hall meetings in key swing districts during a spring break that lasts until April 23 underscores the party’s precarious political position on health care and peaking civic activism by progressives.

Costello and Lance had both voted for the bill in committee but opposed the final bill, saying changes made by House leaders made it more likely the bill would raise costs and reduce coverage for their constituents.

The migration away from public forums has been going on for months, despite complaints from constituents and local media. There have been roughly 30 recent newspaper editorials slamming lawmakers for avoiding town halls and calling on members to face their voters, not only in bluer portions of the country like New York but also in critical battlegrounds like Pennsylvania’s 6th and 7th districts, represented by Reps. Pat Meehan and Costello.

Costello’s office screened participants for his Saturday town hall through the online reservation site Eventbrite and forbid videotaping, leading the local Democratic Party chair to call the event “staged.” Others lawmakers are holding question-and-answer events over the phone or Facebook Live, a social media tool allowing them to speak to a camera while avoiding uncomfortable public exchanges with the citizens they represent.

After a February congressional break generated spirited and even hostile face-to-face meetings with constituents — including one lawmaker who snuck out a back door to avoid an angry crowd — grass-roots organizers credited the power of those images in sending a message to moderate Republicans.

The GOP bill to repeal and replace Obamacare stood at 17% approval by the time it was pulled from the floor, according to a late March Quinnipiac survey. Republican leaders announced just before the break that they are still negotiating provisions of the bill and have not given up on passing it this year.

“Republicans have already squandered a lot of political capital on a bill that went nowhere. The longer the health care issue lingers the more displeased members of both bases are,” said David Wasserman, the House analyst at the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.

One member who's drawn criticism for avoiding town halls is Rep. Peter Roskam, R-Ill. In an email, his spokesman said the congressman has averaged more than one telephone town hall per month. "As we've seen around the country, large, unstructured events tend to devolve into shouting matches. Both sides compete with each other over who can scream the loudest," said David Pash. Tele-town halls are "a much more effective way to engage a larger number of people, including those who aren't able to make it to an in-person event," he said.

© 2017 USATODAY.COM


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