EXETER, N.H. (AP) — Peter Cass could stand it no longer as he listened to the Republican congressman defend a plan to cut taxes and Medicare simultaneously.
"We pay much lower taxes than the rest of the industrialized world," Cass, an engineer from Durham, N.H., shouted from his seat at last week's town hall forum held by freshman Rep. Frank Guinta. America must protect its children, Cass said, and the legislation recently passed by House Republicans won't do it.
Some in the crowd of 200 cheered. Some booed.
So it went in New Hampshire, Arizona, Florida, Wisconsin and throughout the country as lawmakers used a two-week recess to gauge public sentiment on taxes, deficits and spending.
Televised replays of boisterous exchanges suggested that a Democratic counterattack may have stemmed the Republicans' momentum. But many of the Republican-sponsored forums were similar to the one in the Exeter High School auditorium, where several Democrats sharply challenged the GOP plan, and plenty of Republicans defended it and applauded their representative.
The April gatherings had an edgier, more partisan tone than did similar events in March. First-term GOP Rep. Allen West of Florida, a tea party favorite, received mostly praise and friendly questions when he allowed constituents to speak from microphones on March 22.
But last week, West, a retired Army officer with a more confrontational style than Guinta's, responded only to written questions screened in advance. Some hecklers were removed by security agents.
Rep. Paul Ryan, the architect of the House GOP budget plan, hosted an eye-popping 875 people in Greenfield, Wis., where he faced fans and critics alike. In Kenosha, Wis., earlier in the week, Ryan exited through a back door to stymie protesters gathering out front.
Should anyone need reminding, the nation, like Congress, is deeply divided over how extensively to change Medicare, cut spending and revise taxes. When Congress returns to work this coming week, the Democratic-led Senate will set aside the House blueprint. Leaders from both parties will work with the Obama administration to seek a compromise to fund the government in 2012, make long-term changes to Medicare and raise the government's borrowing limit.
Guinta, a low-key former mayor of Manchester, took a turn-the-other-cheek approach to his sometimes noisy critics. When Cass and others asked why he won't raise taxes on the wealthy, Guinta gave roundabout answers that seemed to lull the audience.
A bipartisan plan might emerge from a group of six senators, three from each party, working on the issue, he said. He promised to hold a "manufacturers' summit" and "innovators' conference" in his district, and to "look beyond party labels" for solutions to the nation's problems.
"I don't think he answered my question," said Dan Comly, who has been unemployed for months and who also criticized Guinta for resisting higher taxes on the rich.
Like many GOP lawmakers, Guinta began by asking people over 55 to raise their hands. The Republicans' Medicare plan would affect "none of you," he said.
It would, however, phase in a less costly voucher system when people now younger than 55 retire. President Barack Obama's alternative plan calls for more modest changes to Medicare, plus tax increases on the wealthy after 2012.
"What about our kids?" someone shouted at Guinta. "We have grandchildren!" said another. "What about me, I'm 14," came the call from a student in the back.
Guinta said Medicare and Medicaid, the government health programs for the elderly and the poor, respectively, aren't sustainable in their current forms, so everyone in the country should support changes to put them on sounder footing.
It's unclear how that might happen. April's public forums didn't help to make it clearer.
Robert Howarth, a Republican-turned-Democrat in Arizona, urged freshman Republican Rep. David Schweikert to find "other ways" besides the House-backed plan.
"We don't have to gut Medicare and go after the poor people on disability and Medicare," Howarth said at Schweikert's spirited town hall in Tempe, Ariz. "The millionaires and billionaires are not paying their fair share, like they used to," he said.
Howarth noted there was a strong economy and federal budget surplus during a time of higher tax rates in Bill Clinton's presidency.
Judy Lewis, a veterinarian from Scottsdale, Ariz., argued that the government must cut spending sharply. Even though leaders of both parties say economic calamity could result if Congress doesn't raise the federal debt ceiling in the coming weeks, Lewis warned Schweikert to oppose the plan unless it's tied to "earth-shattering changes" in spending.
Schweikert, a former county treasurer, agreed. He said the debt ceiling is no greater a threat to the economy than is the failure to get deficit spending under control.
In an interview, Schweikert said he has talked with "market makers" who told him "we're going to punish you" if Congress doesn't make huge strides in reducing the deficit.
"What if we just raise it," he said of the debt ceiling, "and interest rates begin to go up because debt markets don't believe we're serious about the debt?" Schweikert likened a solution to "threading a needle," and said he will take the political heat if he's wrong. "But what if I'm not wrong?" he said.
No GOP lawmaker's public forums drew more notice than those of Ryan, the House Budget Committee chairman. Ryan held nearly 20 sessions in April, drawing big and sometimes rowdy crowds.
While some constituents urged Ryan to run for president, others shouted "hands off Medicare" and "tax the rich."
In Greenfield, when Ryan said the recent recession contributed heavily to the deficit, someone shouted, "Bush's wars!"
But the vast majority gave him a standing ovation when he concluded the 75-minute event.
At times last week, the bitterest exchanges had less to do with Medicare than with fundamental questions of how people should run their democracy and confront elected officials.
In Exeter, Tom Pearson of Rye touched off a shouting match by saying Obama "doesn't give a damn about spending." Several people began yelling and booing, and were unmoved when Guinta asked for calm.
One man reminded Guinta that he won the congressional seat last year in a contentious battle in which some Democrats were insulted and threatened.
"You didn't lift a finger" to stop them, the man told Guinta. "It's a little late for decorum, sir."
On such notes will Congress regroup this week to confront the nation's fiscal problems.
Associated Press writers Dinesh Ramde in Greenfield, Wis., Bob Christie in Tempe, Ariz., Margery A. Beck in Omaha, Neb., and Nomaan Merchant in Jonesboro, Ark., contributed to this report.
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