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Hoyer Faces a Rowdy, Divided Crowd

WALDORF, Md. — House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) faced a rowdy crowd of constituents with wildly differing views on health care Tuesday night at his first town hall meeting of the August recess.Nearly 1,500 people cheered, booed and foot-stomped throughout the two-hour gathering as Hoyer ran through the benefits of the Democrats’ health care plan and sought to debunk myths about the bill covering illegal immigrants, rationing care and stripping people of their current health care plans. The thrust of the health care plan, Hoyer said, is that “we keep what works and fix what doesn’t.— He reiterated his support for a public option and said a co-op approach would not pass the House.The meeting, held in the gymnasium at North Point High School, had flashes of pandemonium as people shouted at Hoyer from the bleachers and then turned around to yell at each other. Others walked out in protest when they felt they couldn’t ask their questions.“We’re not asking questions; there’s no questions being asked. It’s a setup. I came here to ask questions,— one woman grumbled as she shook her head and left the event early. The crowd was clearly divided on issues ranging from costs of the bill to the need for a public option. April Burke of Mechanicsville drew cheers when she told Hoyer that she didn’t support the Democrats’ bill because she wants “the government out of our business.— But the crowd also cheered when another constituent, an Iraq War veteran, said that “nothing has helped my life more than the Medicare system in this country.—“I’m sure all of you know that well over 80 million people … have some kind of health insurance that is related to the government,— Hoyer told Burke. Notwithstanding that fact, he said, the Democratic bill would allow people on Medicare to “go to a private doctor or a hospital of your choice. That’s what we’re talking about.—Hoyer also defended himself against criticism over an opinion piece he penned last month with Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) in which they accused disruptive protesters at town halls of being “un-American.—“What is not consistent with our values is shouting down others when they want to speak. I want to make it very clear: That’s what I was referring to. I can’t believe there’s anybody in this room who disagrees with that sentiment. We are a civil society,— Hoyer said.Given the spate of town halls across the country where protesters have shouted down lawmakers, Hoyer’s organizers came prepared with rules: No signs were allowed inside, questions were only granted to people whose ticket numbers were called at random, and people were told not to “interrupt, yell or use profanity.—One surprise questioner at the microphone was Collins Bailey, a Republican candidate who challenged Hoyer in 2008 and who plans to run again in 2010. Bailey, who pressed Hoyer on the health care bill adding to the deficit, said he got the chance to ask his question after a woman sitting near him gave him her winning ticket number. “I had a section of people all around me who wanted me to speak on their behalf,— Bailey said. “I didn’t ask anybody for a ticket.—Bailey, who said Hoyer smiled when he saw him at the microphone, said he didn’t think it was “wise— that Hoyer chose a town hall format that included a panel of constituents telling stories about how health care reform would help them.“Hoyer would have been better received if he had just gotten to the questions,— Bailey said. “Just saying the same thing five times doesn’t necessarily stimulate the dialogue. The panel was just kind of like promotion pieces.—By the end, Hoyer acknowledged the wide range of opinions in the room as he thanked people for coming: “Whether you agree with me or not, this is a good process.—

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