After Budget Vote, Freshman Rep. Faces Constituents
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
We've been hearing this week from town hall meetings held by members of Congress during the recess. One hot topic has been the budget proposal by Republican Paul Ryan of Wisconsin. Ryan himself got some heckling in his own district, as we heard yesterday. But that hazing can be a greater test for freshmen facing constituents they are just getting to know.
As NPR's Audie Cornish reports, that was the case for Republican Renee Ellmers of North Carolina.
AUDIE CORNISH: Assistants to Representative Ellmers were at the meeting room good and early, ripping open packets of handouts and setting up the wall projector for her first town hall meeting in the small town of Spring Hope, North Carolina.
Unidentified Woman: Is this where the meeting is going to be?
CORNISH: Roughly two dozen people, mostly seniors sprinkled into the Spring Hope Municipal Building. Despite recent tornado destruction in the state, voters such as Sylvia Williams are focused on national politics, especially the national debt and the fate of entitlement programs like Medicare.
Ms. SYLVIA WILLIAMS: 'Cause you hear a lot of feeds out there and you wonder if this will last. And then you panic, especially if you're in that age group.
CORNISH: Ellmers tries to head off of that sense of panic in a flurry of charts, graphs and reassurances.
Representative RENEE ELLMERS (Republican, North Carolina): This is only going to affect those of us who are 54 and under. Anyone 55 and older, it's all the same. We want to combat the distortion and lies that are out there. The Democrats' heads are exploding over this.
CORNISH: Ellmers, a former nurse and political newcomer, was one of those candidates who rode into office on a wave of attacks against President Obama's health care overhaul last fall.
Rep. ELLMERS: President Obama gives cell phones to welfare recipients, while cutting Medicare $500 billion to pay for ObamaCare. That's...
CORNISH: In ads, she specifically criticized the new health care law over the savings it's projected to take for Medicare. But now, Democrats are going after Ellmers. Their ads in robo-calls accuse her of supporting far more radical changes to Medicare and flip-flopping on her promise to protect the program.
Rep. ELLMERS: There could be nothing this farther from the truth. We're kind of comparing apples to oranges and trying to make an issue out of a nonissue. The real crux of the point here is, as I've pointed out in my discussion, what we have here is the fundamental fight between conservatism and liberalism.
CORNISH: Ellmers was a surprise winner last fall. With the backing of Tea Party activists, she defeated Democratic incumbent Bob Etheridge after a weeklong recount. And her political fate is very much tied to the new Republican majority.
Voters like Ken Ripley very much have their doubts about Ellmers and the Republican plan. Ripley edits the local paper, the Spring Hope Enterprise, but says he came to this meeting as a citizen.
Mr. KEN RIPLEY (Editor, Spring Hope Enterprise): I've had four surgeries in the last three years - two hip replacements, two knee replacements, an infection, and my wife is a clinical pharmacist. I live within the healthcare system. She's the one - they're eliminating Medicare. At 54 or younger, you don't get it. So the Medicare is like a legacy program at that point, just to take care of the - I think buying off the Tea Party is what they're doing.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CORNISH: But Joanne Carlson, a retiree from Lake Royal, walks away convinced Ellmers is doing the right thing.
Ms. JOANNE CARLSON: If you're younger, you're able to do something about it, where when you're older you can't do anything about it. The younger population is going to have to help turn this around.
CORNISH: If Ellmers can convince enough of her district this budget plan is the way to change course in Washington, her first term in Congress may be just the beginning.
Audie Cornish, NPR News.
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