Summer Town Halls Pit GOP Lawmakers Against Tea Party

Tactics to stop 'Obamacare' divides lawmakers and constituents at town halls.

House Ways and Means Committee member Rep. Aaron Schock, R-Ill., right, greets Sue Martinek of the Coalition for Life of Iowa, on Capitol Hill on Tuesday, June 4, 2013, in Washington D.C.

Rep. Aaron Schock, R-Ill., told voters a shutdown won't stop "Obamacare" from being funded.


Democrats were taking all the heat at town halls a few years ago when lawmakers passed the Affordable Care Act. Now Republicans are the ones in the hot seat.

It all goes back to the plan hatched by Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, last month, which is dividing the GOP. Lee suggests that Republicans should band together to threaten a government shutdown if the Democrats include funding for "Obamacare" in the continuing resolution, a stopgap measure to keep the government to the end of the year.

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A wide range of Republicans on Capitol Hill dismissed the plan. Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., called it the "dumbest idea I've ever heard." But many constituents don't see it that way and they are using a five-week August recess to make their voices heard.

In congressional districts from Oklahoma to Illinois, GOP lawmakers are being forced to explain that while they don't support the Affordable Care Act, they are not about to take a political gamble and shut down the federal government as a statement of their dissatisfaction.

At a town hall in Moore, Okla., Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., parried with irritated constituents who booed him when he called shutting down the government in an effort to defund the Affordable Care Act "reckless."

"If it would work that would be one thing, but it is very high risk and very reckless for people who have jobs on the line," Cole said alluding to the area's Tinker Air Force Base, which would be affected by a shutdown. "Politically, it is an extraordinarily difficult thing to do."

[AP: Personal 'Obamacare' Accounts Debut]

In a recess when most pundits and activists expected the immigration debate to spark controversy, Cole wasn't the only one facing an onslaught of questions about the shutdown.

Rep. Aaron Schock, R-Ill., also found himself in a tactical and political discussion with his voters, telling them that a shutdown won't stop "Obamacare" from being funded.

"Operationally, the Affordable Care Act benefits are not a part of the discretionary line items in our budget," Schock says. "If the government shut down tomorrow, it would not necessarily stop the Affordable Care Act from being implemented."

Republican pollster Dan Judy said while the idea may appear overwhelmingly popular among the loudest tea party voices at town halls, only half of Republicans support it and nationally it is an election loser.

"It is short-sighted to divide our base and send independents into the arms of Democrats over this shutdown issue," Judy says.

The town hall drama unfolding this week shows why some lawmakers simply don't engage with voters in such a public dialogue.

[READ: Hey Voters, Congressional Gridlock Is Kind of Your Fault]

"The tea party is very good with video. Unless you are going to agree with those constituents on tactics, you probably shouldn't make yourself available to a town hall meeting," says John Feehery, a Republican strategist and former House staffer.

Feehery says if lawmakers do choose to engage, they should stay away from tactical political discussions.

"A lot of these people don't care about or understand the legislative process," says John Feehery, a Republican strategist and former House staffer. "You have constituents who just really aren't that bright. They listen to

Rush Limbaugh and they watch Fox News and they listen to Glenn Beck and they are advising legislators on how to legislate."

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