GOP lawmakers brace for new round of town hall backlash

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Tom McClintock town hall bts_00000000

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    GOP town hall gets personal

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GOP town hall gets personal 01:07

Story highlights

  • Most members of Congress are home in their districts for a two-week recess
  • A tradition of most recesses is that lawmaker hold town hall meetings with constituents

Washington (CNN)In February, the anti-Donald Trump protesters at a California Rep. Tom McClintock town hall meeting got so raucous that police escorted the Republican congressman out of the venue.

Over the weekend, McClintock faced two more hours of sharp questions from an anti-Trump crowd over health care, the President's taxes and Syria. It didn't match the chaos of his earlier town hall -- but McClintock did have to plead with the rowdy crowd for calm.
"Ladies and gentleman, this is supposed to be a civil discussion," he said. "Be civil, be polite, and allow people to have a civil exchange of ideas."
Over the next two weeks, many other Republicans could be pleading for the same sort of reprieve.
McClintock was among the first of dozens of Republicans to face another round of protests and criticism as Congress takes a spring break.
Republicans in competitive congressional districts will be under particularly intense scrutiny.
Among the town halls that will draw the most attention: Rep. Leonard Lance, R-New Jersey, is holding one Wednesday evening in Flanders; Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colorado, will be under a major spotlight Wednesday night in Aurora; and next week, Rep. Jeff Denham's Monday night event in Denair, California, and Rep. Scott Tipton of Colorado's town halls in Alamosa on Tuesday and Pueblo West on Thursday will be among the most-watched.
The topic expected to once again dominate the town halls: Health care.
The failure of Trump and House Speaker Paul Ryan to convince fellow Republicans to repeal the Affordable Care Act gave an energized Democratic base an initial victory.
Then, when Trump and the conservative House Freedom Caucus attempted to revive the health care effort, it revived progressive activists' efforts just days before lawmakers would head home for a two-week recess -- with town hall meetings scheduled throughout.
Groups like Indivisible and MoveOn.org are urging local progressives to attend the meetings. And the intensity of the interest around the events has lawmakers -- especially moderate Republicans in competitive districts facing tough re-election battles in 2018 -- paying close attention.
At a town hall Saturday in West Chester, Pennsylvania Rep. Ryan Costello told the crowd he wouldn't accept two of the major policy goals of the conservative Freedom Caucus: Repealing Obamacare's "essential health benefits" mandating coverage for items like maternity care, and its "community rating" provision that prohibits insurers from charging higher rates to those with pre-existing conditions.
Costello embraced the activists -- even as he dodged a question on Trump's tax returns and refused the crowd's pleas to embrace a single-payer "Medicare for all" health care system.
"How about that T-shirt?" he asked the crowd of a woman's "Nevertheless she Persisted" shirt -- a slogan embraced by the left since Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell used the phrase to admonish firebrand Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren.
"Look at that pin!" he told the crowd when another questioner approached wearing an anti-Trump "Resist" pin on her shirt.
In an interview beforehand, Costello was distracted several times by protesters just outside the window of his district office.
"Give us his tax returns," he chuckled, reading a passerby protester's sign.
"A roller-blader now is telling me about it," Costello muttered five minutes later as another man skated by.
Costello is so attuned to those protesting him that in an interview, he laid out the schedules of each of the groups that protest outside his office in West Chester's town center daily and weekly. "On good days there's 50; on bad days there's 15," he said.
He even asked the local Indivisible chapter to delay its planned noon Saturday protest by two hours to avoid a conflict with a military academy nomination event. It obliged.
"Hopefully there will be more," he said, looking outside. "The more people, the better. It's democracy."
Still, Costello wouldn't criticize the hard-line conservatives in his own party whose policy objectives caused part of the backlash he faced Saturday.
"If you're going to be a governing majority in the House Republicans, we have to work through this stuff," Costello said. "And I get concerned ... finger-pointing can diminish our ability to marshal legislation forward."