Meet the People: Lawmakers Head Home and Prepare for the 2010 Campaign Season

A year ago, in August 2009, Democrats returned home to their districts and probably started to lose control of Washington.

Overheated, confrontational town hall meetings, as seen in grainy cell phone videos on YouTube, dominated news coverage, gave public voice to the tea party movement and drove moderate Republicans from the health reform debate.

Democrats ultimately passed the health reform law, but the process was much more painful for them than anyone predicted.

As lawmakers head home for the summer this year, it's not the fate of the health care bill that is at stake for Democrats, it is their majority in Congress.

Rep. Jim Himes, D-Conn., was questioned at his town hall meetings and protests erupted outside last August.

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He ultimately supported the health reform bill, but he is not shying away from town hall meetings this year. Himes has announced another slate for early August.

But instead of focusing on health reform, however, he hopes to focus on how to reduce the spiraling national debt and has invited David Walker, the former U.S. comptroller general and a recognized deficit activist, to give a presentation at one town hall meeting. Himes expects, in part because the health reform bill is now law, that passions will have cooled and the summer of '10 will stand in marked contrast to the summer of '09.

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"The budget has not been demagogued nearly the way that health care was," said Himes, in a phone interview from Connecticut. "There's no budget equivalent of death panels. ... You can look at a pie chart and pretty much understand our long-term budget problems."

Himes should expect some company at his meetings from tea party activists.

"He will be questioned," said Bob MacGuffie, the Connecticut-based tea party activist who wrote a widely-cited memo, and posted it online last year, encouraging disruption of town hall meetings.

"They ran into 'We the People,'" said MacGuffie of last August. MacGuffie suggests his people won't back down this year.

"We'll challenge them," he said of congressmen. "The town halls are scripted from their side. They're putting up a bunch of misperceptions, head-fake statements and, in some cases, outright lies."

MacGuffie said he welcomes the opportunity to discuss the national debt instead of health reform.

"This has to be stopped," he said of government spending. "We know where this leads. It basically leads to the bankruptcy of the nation. Eventually the world will stop buying our debt."

There is some evidence that this August will bring some made-for-YouTube moments.

A recently posted video shows Rep. Pete Stark, D-Calif., defending the constitutionality of the health reform law to a woman in California who then reads a circuitous prepared argument that compares the law to slavery.

Stark is booed when he says, "The federal government, yes, can do most anything in this country."

Watch the video here.

Republicans back in Washington, with the political wind at their backs and trying to harness the anti-incumbent wave have accused Democrats of avoiding public interaction with the very constituents they represent.

"I would venture to say that Democrats have gone into hiding," declared Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia, the number two Republican in Congress, during an interview on MSNBC. "Whereas John Boehner and I and the rest of our conference are out there, taking our message to the people, talking about the specific things that they can expect if we're a majority and we're frankly listening to people ... Democrats have demonstrated they're unwilling to do that."

Republicans are trying to be as accessible as possible. They have created a workbook with day-by-day suggestions for what Republican lawmakers should do each day of the break and a 12-point to-do list.

But plans for an online database of all Republicans' town hall meetings was scrapped.

Democrats point to a tabulation of town hall meetings maintained by a private company that showed in June that Democrats had more public events than Republicans.

Of course, there are a lot more Democrats currently in Congress than Republicans. Averaging out the 490 town hall meetings Knowlegis credits to Democrats through June means there have been a little less than two meetings per member. The Republican average of town hall meetings is higher -- a little less than 2.5.

Many Democrats also seem likely to lessen their exposure to angry town hall constituents, focusing instead on telephone town halls -- large conference calls on which constituents are invited to take part -- and visits to local businesses.

Both Himes and John Boccieri, D-Ohio, voted for the health reform law and represent key swing districts that Democrats won in 2008. Boccieri is the first Democrat to represent his Ohio district since the 1940s. Their districts will be important for Democrats as they try to keep control of Congress in 2010.

"I don't anticipate the same level of anxiety now that the bill has passed and been enacted," said Boccieri, predicting that people are more concerned with the unemployment rate than with the health reform law.

"Folks want to work," he said. "They want to go punch a time clock. They want to put bread on the table for their family. There's still a lot of anxiety about the economy."

But when asked how he defends the health reform law on the stump in his moderate district, Boccieri has a ready answer, tying it back into the debt issue.

"Look, we had to do something," he said. "We see what our budget projections are. Health care costs are the fastest growing line item of any small business, any large business or any governmental agency from the most local to the most federal. ... When asked about the health care dilemma, we say that we've turned the corner."