Constituents Question Rep. Meehan's Budget Vote

Congress left town a week ago having settled one budget fight that keeps the government funded until October. But more epic battles are in store when lawmakers get back early next month. Rep. Pat Meehan (R-PA) defended his recent votes during town hall-style meetings with constituents.

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And American lawmakers will face a big challenge of a different sort when they return from a spring break in a couple of weeks. Members of Congress left Washington, D.C. after settling a big budget fight that keeps the government funded until October. Now, some are holding town hall meetings in their districts, both to hear from constituents and to defend their recent votes.

NPR's David Welna went to the southeastern corner of Pennsylvania this week, where he found freshman Republican Congressman Pat Meehan holding five town hall meetings in one day.

Mr. TIM CRUMLEY(ph): Tim Crumley.

Representative PAT MEEHAN (Republican, Pennsylvania): Tim, how are you?

Mr. CRUMLEY: Good.

Rep. MEEHAN: Nice to see you. Thank you.

DAVID WELNA: About 20 mostly elderly people showed up at the township meeting room in the Philadelphia suburb of West Chester the other day. Before them stood a tall, friendly looking man with a shock of white hair and dark eyebrows.

Rep. MEEHAN: I'm Pat Meehan, the congressman from the 7th Congressional District. And I thank you for taking your time to come out this afternoon and give me an opportunity to speak with you a little bit.

WELNA: And then the questions started coming. A man wearing a hat with the word Marines across the front had a bone to pick. Seventy-year-old Ed Walsh was angry that Meehan and other House Republicans voted last week for the compromise that kept the government from shutting down. They broke their promise, he said, to cut $100 billion from that spending bill. Instead, he added, they blinked by settling for just $38 billion in spending cuts.

Mr. ED WALSH: If things don't change, you're going to see a huge sea change if we even have a next election. But I will definitely personally vote against you in the primary. And, in fact, I will actively work against you.

WELNA: Meehan, who's a former federal prosecutor, appeared taken aback.

Rep. MEEHAN: I appreciate your perspective on that.

WELNA: He added that House Republicans have started moving things in the right direction by forcing Democrats to agree to spending cuts.

Rep. MEEHAN: And I want to tell you why I voted not to shut the government down, because Marines like you are over there right now protecting our country on the front lines. And if we shut that government down, they weren't going to be paid.

WELNA: Meehan also sought to defend his vote last week for a spending plan for next year, drawn up by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan. Arguably, that budget's most controversial item is a plan to change Medicare into a voucher program.

Meehan said he expected Democrats would bash Republicans for backing that plan.

Rep. MEEHAN: I think I'm going to be attacked from now until Election Day. And I think there can try to scare seniors, and they're going to try to give misinformation that's going to try to put this into a cycle that - and a dialogue that is different than the facts.

WELNA: Despite Meehan's defense of a revamping of Medicare, 83-year-old Mary Fran Ballard(ph) remains skeptical.

Ms. MARY FRAN BALLARD: I'm afraid the insurance companies would be the ones who determined what the government - what was paid. And they will be - have their own interests in mind first.

WELNA: Ballard is a Democrat in a district President Obama won two years ago, which was also represented by a Democrat in Congress who left office last year.

GOP local committeeman Jim McArdle(ph) says it's hardly a safe district for Meehan.

Mr. JIM MCARDLE (Member, Republican Committee, Chester County): It used to be very solid Republican. Now it can go Democratic. So the Republicans have to work very hard out here. They didn't used to have work as hard.

WELNA: At one town hall meeting after another, Meehan was pressed on the next big issue Congress faces: Raising the debt ceiling. He told a group in the town of Radnor that he did not want the government to default on its debt obligations. But he also wanted more commitments from Democrats to reign in spending.

Rep. MEEHAN: And I think it's important to say this is one of the issues that's both an opportunity, but a reality. And I'm not in any way ducking the idea that you hope the people go in - and again, from both parties - on drive a hard bargain on this issue.

WELNA: The debt ceiling vote was raised by a constituent named Frank Tate. He was less than satisfied with Meehan's answer.

Mr. FRANK TATE: He was a normal politician. He tried to walk the middle. So he gave political answers. So, I like straight yeses and nos.

(Soundbite of laughter)

WELNA: Later, I pressed Meehan on how he intended to vote on raising the debt ceiling.

Rep. MEEHAN: We've got to get yes, but you never walk in and say this is what I'm absolutely going to do right now. Let's see what's on the table. Let's see what we work together with. And let's see how we collectively sit down and try to get to a resolution.

WELNA: So is it on the table that you could vote against raising the debt ceiling?

Rep. MEEHAN: Let's wait to see. You never say what you never will do or will do until you know what's in front of you.

WELNA: Because whichever way Meehan votes on this and many other issues, he knows he'll be watched closely by Democrats who want the seat he holds back, and by Republicans who want him to stand firm.

David Welna, NPR News.

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