By Kathy Kiely and John Fritze, USA TODAY
SOUTH BOSTON, Va. — Rep. Tom Perriello loosened his shirt collar and inhaled the humid air outside a local high school here after three hours of having more than 100 of his constituents pound away at him during a town-hall-style meeting on health care. He insisted that this was exactly what he wanted.
"I like a debate like that," he said after the Friday session.
POLL: Americans divided on health care overhaul
A freshman Democrat who won his seat by 727 votes last year in a district that President Obama lost, Perriello participated in what he called "a revolt" by Democratic conservatives to stop party leaders from passing health care legislation before the summer recess. Perriello, 34, told his constituents here he thought August should be "a national town-hall meeting" on the bill.
That's what it's turning out to be, but not all Democrats may be as enthusiastic as Perriello.
In the past two weeks, Texas Rep. Lloyd Doggett was shouted down by an angry crowd; Michigan Rep. John Dingell's town-hall-style meetings required police intervention, and Rep. Brad Miller, D-N.C., said he got a death threat from a caller upset that he's not holding an August forum.
Republicans aren't exempt, as Rep. Charlie Dent, discovered Thursday night when he waded into a packed bingo hall in his eastern Pennsylvania district. The third-term lawmaker told his constituents the Democrats' plans for overhauling the health care system will create "a European-style welfare state." Even so, some in the audience wanted to make sure he got the message about keeping the government out of their lives.
"Stay out," they yelled, waving copies of the Constitution.
Democratic congressional leaders, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, say Republican activists are hijacking lawmakers' town halls and spreading disinformation about the health care legislation. On Friday, former GOP vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin charged that Obama's bill would result in a "death panel" that could deny care to disabled persons such as Palin's youngest son, who has Down syndrome. Conservative talk-show host Rush Limbaugh's website featured the image of an Obama health care logo morphing into a swastika.
Obama, in his Saturday radio address, denounced "the outlandish rumors that reform will promote euthanasia, cut Medicaid or bring about a government takeover of health care."
All of those charges came up at Perriello's forum here Friday, but those who raised them went out of their way to point out that, while they were angry, they were not a mob.
"I have not seen one swastika in our group of people," Tracy Schweitzer told the congressman, referring to Pelosi's comment that some protesters were "carrying swastikas and symbols like that" to the meetings.
Afterward, Perriello said Democrats make a mistake if they question the motives of health care skeptics. "The positions people have are genuine; their concern is real," he said.
At Dent's meeting Thursday night, many came with specific questions. Virginia Tabor, 83, of Catasauqua asked about tax-free health savings accounts for medical care. The Senate Finance Committee is considering limiting them.
"People get to spend their own money, make their own decisions," Tabor said. "This type of approach is what we need instead of government handouts."
The forum was civil but animated. Each time Dent, 49, finished speaking as many as a dozen hands would go up. People occasionally shouted out or applauded his comments.
"Obviously, there's a lot of anger and frustration out there with what's going on in Washington," said Dent, a GOP centrist who voted this year to expand children's health care.
At Perriello's forum, there were signs that some members of the audience were talking as much to YouTube as each other. Video cameras and cellphones were trained on every exchange with the congressman.
One questioner, Justin Smith, 27, who told Perriello that his Social Security money is "being stolen from me," carried a book by conservative talk-show host Glenn Beck. Beck's website carries a list of congressional forums and urges fans to "join the health care debate."
Perriello dismissed the notion that he was the victim of an organized ambush. "We helped organize it," he said after the meeting. "We sent out cards."
Underlying some of the stagier aspects of the meeting lurked an intense concern about the cost and long-term implications of the health care bill.
Machinist David Saunders, 48, has to rely on his wife's health insurance. "My boss can't afford it," he said. He worries that requiring employers to provide it would force the layoffs of some of his younger colleagues. And he worries that small companies such as his "will shovel me onto a government program whether I like it or not," he said. "I'd much rather be in control of my own health."
Perriello said he heard a different story in the meetings he has been holding throughout the district with AARP chapters and local business leaders.
"The more they hear about the bill," he said, "the more they remember why they want health reform."