BOILING SPRINGS, S.C./OCONTO FALLS, Wisc. (Reuters) - At scattered events across the United States, protesters are confronting members of Congress whose summer “town hall” meetings aim to get a sense of how Americans feel about overhauling healthcare.
Boiling Springs in South Carolina — population 4,500 — was true to its name on Thursday, giving U.S. Representative Bob Inglis a taste of rising anger among conservative voters toward President Barack Obama’s reform plan.
“There is no way, shape or form we need to have a national healthcare system. No! Nothing! None! It’s got to stop now,” said one man who addressed the audience of 300 people to sustained applause.
The plans seek to provide coverage to nearly 46 million uninsured Americans and bring down healthcare costs.
Conservatives say they will lead to a nationalized healthcare system where government, rather than doctors, will make medical decisions. They say the plans will end up costing them more and boost the federal deficit.
With lawmakers gone from Washington for a month and much of the plans still to be drafted, the rancorous battle has spread to usually staid, relaxed town hall meetings.
A chorus of people in the audience heckled, shouted down and interrupted Inglis, a Republican, even as he tried to explain why he opposed the plans put forward by Obama, a Democrat who became president six months ago.
“I consider myself just an average American but there is not a day or a week that goes by that I don’t hear talk about revolution in our country because (of) the government,” said a man who called himself a “conservative, mainstream American.”
“We (the United States under Obama) have gone so far out of the Constitution,” he said to a standing ovation.
Other speakers asked about “martial law” and “forced vaccinations” and when the topic turned to illegal immigrants in the Bible Belt town, someone shouted: “Bus them home.”
Last week, a crowd in Philadelphia directed boos at Obama’s Health and Human Services secretary, Kathleen Sibelius, and Democratic Senator Arlen Specter.
Protesters disrupted another meeting on Thursday in Tampa, Florida, with cries of “tyranny,” and police made arrests at a similar meeting in St. Louis, Missouri.
Opinion polls show that many Americans feel the U.S. healthcare system, the costliest in the world, is in need of reform. They also show millions of Americans with health insurance are satisfied with it.
A group called the Tea Party protesters — named for the Boston tax revolt that helped spark the American Revolution — has launched a campaign to disrupt Democratic town hall meetings on healthcare.
“Public opinion is the only way the Republicans can stop this,” said James Ceaser, a political science professor at the University of Virginia. “They need to check Obama’s momentum.”
Around a thousand miles northwest of Boiling Springs — in Oconto Falls, Wisconsin — the mood was different. Vic Bast, 86, a World War Two fighter pilot and retired school principal, attended a meeting with Democratic Congressman Steve Kagen.
“I’m a veteran, so I have good healthcare. But my daughter has just retired and she has to pay $1,000 a month in premiums,” Bast said. “Healthcare costs are getting out of control. I don’t know if this bill will pass, but something must be done.”
“We are engaged in the most critical debate in our country in this century,” Kagen told Reuters after meeting around 50 constituents in the dairy farming community of around 2,800.
“We don’t have an option, we have to reform or this country will go broke,” he said, but added: “People in my district are afraid of what they don’t know, which is why I’m here.”
Kagen’s district tends to vote Republican and he is the target of radio advertisements attacking his policies in an attempt to undermine support for his reelection bid in 2010.
In Boiling Springs, Inglis was repeatedly interrupted when he said government could in some cases play a positive role in people’s lives — a sign that conservative anger could potentially threaten some Republicans as well as Democrats.
A few people waved pink slips to suggest he should lose his job and a banner read: “Inglis loves big government.”
Aides praised Inglis for standing his ground. The lawmaker later told Reuters the mood at one town hall meeting did not reflect the entire district.
“Fear is driving people to the extremes,” he said. “Tonight we had people that are very fearful about President Obama and very distrustful of him as a person and his agenda.”
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs urged that people go on discussing the issues but without the rancor.
“It’s important that people be civil. We can discuss these issues without being uncivilized. It’s the same thing I tell my 6-year-old,” he told reporters on Friday.
Editing by Peter Bohan and Howard Goller