Congress' spring break a time for voters to vent

CLAREMONT, New Hampshire Sun Apr 8, 2012 4:56pm EDT

Tulips are seen in bloom on the first official day of Spring on Capitol Hill in Washington, March 20, 2012. REUTERS/Larry Downing

Tulips are seen in bloom on the first official day of Spring on Capitol Hill in Washington, March 20, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Larry Downing

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CLAREMONT, New Hampshire (Reuters) - At home in New Hampshire, the land of Yankee skepticism, congressman Charlie Bass was being asked to explain his support for the new Republican budget.

"What I have heard is that it would end Medicare as we know it," a nurse from Charlestown, New Hampshire, told Bass during a town hall meeting last week, holding a printout of an e-mail in her hand.

"Who is the author of that thing you're reading?" Bass asked.

It came from two Washington, D.C., think tanks, she said.

"It's a complete fabrication," Bass replied, as the two began to speak over one another. "That's political dogma."

The scene in Claremont -- an old mill town where a 19th-century opera house is a reminder of a more prosperous past -- is typical of those in communities across the nation, as members of Congress on a two-week spring break hear their constituents' concerns and try to explain their actions in Washington.

At a time of high unemployment and home foreclosure rates, frustration with Congress and rising anxiety over how to deal with the national debt without gutting programs such as Medicare health insurance for the elderly and the Social Security retirement program, such meetings aren't always comfortable for lawmakers.

But they can offer a vivid picture of voters' feelings, as Republicans and Democrats start gearing up in earnest for presidential and congressional elections on November 6.

In 2010, similar gatherings packed with conservatives grew ugly over President Barack Obama's healthcare overhaul, providing a sign of the persistence of the emerging conservative Tea Party movement and foretelling the shellacking that awaited Democrats in the fall elections.

This year, the issue of the moment is Republicans' efforts to trim the national debt, starting with a budget plan put forward by Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin.

Ryan and Mitt Romney, the likely Republican presidential nominee, say the plan -- which recently passed the Republican-led House of Representatives on a party-line vote - is a first step toward curbing the runaway costs of a range of government initiatives, including Medicare.

"SOCIAL DARWINISM"

Obama called the plan "social Darwinism," saying it would make too-drastic cuts that would disproportionately affect lower-income Americans giving preference to the wealthy.

In New Hampshire and Illinois last week, voters made clear that they were worried about the potential impact of a plan such as Ryan's -- but that they were also alarmed by rising government spending and increasingly annoyed by dysfunction in Washington.

"Our legislature doesn't know how to fix things, they know how to run for office. They know how to campaign," said Carol Fischer of Kane County, Illinois. She described herself as a moderate Republican who, despite her frustration, probably would stick with Republican Representative Judy Biggert in the November election, when Biggert will face Democrat Bill Foster.

Few races offer more fertile ground for testing the strength of Obama and his presumed opponent, Romney, than Bass' district in New Hampshire.

While Romney and Obama often play to their party's wings, it is in centrist places such as New Hampshire's 2nd Congressional District that their parties' arguments will see their stiffest tests.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is eagerly watching Bass, a Republican representing a Democratic-leaning district, hoping his seat will be overtaken by their party. The son of a congressman and grandson of a governor, Bass has hitched his star to Romney. He told a gathering of businessmen recently that he would be in big trouble without the former Massachusetts governor at the top of the ticket.

Bass' Democratic opponent, lawyer and non-profit fundraiser Ann Kuster, was Obama's state co-chairwoman in 2008. Bass beat Kuster by 3,551 votes in 2010, a thin margin in a fat year for Republicans.

"It's a district that takes its politics pretty seriously," said Tom Rath, a New Hampshire adviser to Romney, whose law firm hired Kuster. Today, she rents office space from the firm.

Judging by the questions that Bass handled on Tuesday, the Republican budget proposal will be central to the campaign. But other issues, such as rising gas prices, were on voters' minds, too.

In Claremont, many said that they were worried that Bass wanted to lower taxes on the wealthy. They worried about his association not with Romney but with Ryan, the author of the Republican budget.

Bass voted for Ryan's budget plan, which has helped to make Ryan a Republican hero, and target for Democratic criticism.

At one point during the Claremont meeting, Bass seemed uncomfortable with Ryan's prominence. When asked about the Ryan budget, Bass said, "I hate to call it that. It's the Republican budget in Congress."

DEBATING GOVERNMENT'S ROLE

As gas prices rise, Bass will trumpet his work to increase energy efficiency. Last Wednesday, he put on a hard hat and peered into a 2,000-degree fire to talk about energy conservation with the owner of Concord Steam Corp. in the state capital.

Bass is so well-known in his district that voters call him "Uncle Charlie."

The 60-year-old first ran for office 32 years ago. His politics have been shaped by the area's middle-of-the-road ways. He reminded voters on Tuesday that he has supported Obama's plans to shrink the military's presence in Iraq and Afghanistan. He is a member of the dwindling group of Republicans who describe themselves as "pro-choice" on abortion.

Such flexibility made one Romney adviser in New Hampshire nervous about the presidential candidate embracing the congressman's support.

"Conservatives don't trust Charlie," adviser Jim Merrill wrote in an internal memo, obtained by National Journal in November. They worry "he'll vote to raise taxes," Merrill said.

Many of the 40 people who came to speak with Bass came from towns once powered by mills and factories long since shuttered.

Larry Converse, 69, a Democrat from Claremont said he was worried about losing his Medicare coverage. Converse once worked in the polishing department of the Sturm, Ruger & Co. gun maker and said that government assistance had helped to keep his family together.

"If it weren't for the federal government, we wouldn't have survived," Converse said. "There were five kids. We depended on surplus food. That is the only thing that kept us going."

Four years ago, Frank Delorier, 73, of nearby Newport, moved out of his house and into a mobile home.

"If I had a family today, I couldn't afford it," said the one-time trucker and oil-field worker.

(This story corrects spelling of Ann Kuster's first name in paragraph 18)

(Additional reporting by Eric Johnson; Editing by David Lindsey and Christopher Wilson)

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Comments (7)
flashrooster wrote:
What is being overlooked in this article is that our elected representatives don’t care what we think any more. We don’t matter.

For example, Republicans can support the Ryan budget, which tends to be unpopular with Americans, and their constituents will turn right around and reelect them, then go back to complaining about the Ryan budget.

It’s all about the money, which is why the conservative Supreme Court ruled in favor of Citizens United, so that there’s no end to the money that wealthy contributors can contribute to political campaigns, allowing the profiteer class to continue its control of our government. Enough ads can convince the majority of just about anything.

The secret? Tell them whatever validates their ideology. Vote for me. The Lord Jesus Christ is my savior, I pledge to you that I’ll never raise your taxes, and I will fight everyday to ban abortion. Run enough ads repeating that and a ton of ads denigrating your opponent, and if you spend more than your opponent you’ll win. You don’t even have to worry about explaining your positions in any depth. As long as you have Jesus in your heart, your constituents will trust your judgement. After that, just spend your time passing legislation that helps your benefactors make more money. That’s the conservative game plan in a nutshell.

Americans have become ideologically dependent. The only chance our country has at remaining a viable democracy (yes, our Republic, which is a form of democracy) is to get the money out of our elections and adopt public financing. But the conservative-dominated Supreme Court is protecting the corruption in our government. The bottom line is this: As long as conservatives dominate the Supreme Court, corruption will continue to rule the United States of America. Where are all of those “patriotic” conservatives with their car magnets now?

Apr 08, 2012 6:52pm EDT  --  Report as abuse
Sensibility wrote:
flashrooster: I agree. Our elected representatives (both parties) do not care what we think. And while I disagree with you about the threat posed to the US by the Supreme Court, I do further agree that politics is all about the money.

However, that’s not what this article is about. This article is about people engaging in their democracy by challenging their elected officials. Reuters is to be commended for reporting this story, rather than denigrated for not making every article suit your immediate focus.

Apr 09, 2012 10:26am EDT  --  Report as abuse
brotherkenny4 wrote:
If you are engaging a representative of the ruling class in political debate it is simply an exercise in futility. These people, both parties, are preselected by the business community as allowed by Citizens United. We will never have the option of voting for anyone who isn’t approved of by the wealthiest people in the world, not just in the US, but the world. You see, money is power and is all that matters. Americans are not bright enough or strong enough to not be influenced by the media barrage that comes with superpack money.

Apr 09, 2012 12:05pm EDT  --  Report as abuse
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