House Majority Whip James Clyburn says town hall protesters are ruining civil discourse.
House Majority Whip James Clyburn says town hall protesters are ruining civil discourse. Pool/Getty Images
House Majority Whip James Clyburn, a Democrat from South Carolina, called citizens who have been booing, heckling and interrupting town hall meetings "hostile and rude." These vocal opponents of President Obama's health care plan are no longer engaged in a civil debate, Clyburn tells NPR's Michel Martin, but are trying to start "a cascading effect that will result in victories for them at the polls next November."
According to Clyburn, protesters have been perpetuating lies about the president's health care plan, saying Obama supports a single-payer plan, which the congressman says is untrue. "No matter what you say, they have decided that 'this is my line' and they are sticking to it," he said.
On Tuesday, a town hall meeting in Lebanon, Pa., with Democratic Sen. Arlen Specter was interrupted by yelling and angry outcries from a majority of the 250 citizens in attendance. And on Aug. 8, protesters chanting, "Just Say No!" congregated around Democratic Rep. Lloyd Doggett of Texas at a supermarket, where he holds "neighborhood office hours."
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi deemed the protests "simply un-American" and said some of the protesters were carrying signs with painted swastikas. Her statements incited passionate responses from Republicans who contend those speaking out are using their rights of free speech and who dismissed accusations that images of swastikas have been used. But Democratic Rep. David Scott told NPR he found a 4-foot-wide swastika spray-painted in black on his office door in Smyrna, Ga., 10 days after a town hall meeting he attended was interrupted by protesters.
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A protester at a town hall meeting in Lebanon, Pa., tells Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter he will be judged by God.
A protester at a town hall meeting in Lebanon, Pa., tells Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter he will be judged by God. Chris Gardner/Getty Images
Clyburn says that had the health care plan been amended and passed before Congress left for fall recess last week, the nation would being witnessing an entirely different political climate today. Still, he says the vast majority of Americans, and his constituents in South Carolina, want to see health care reform pass when Congress returns from recess after Labor Day.
"This is a fight for the heart and soul of the United States of America," Clyburn said. "Those of us who believe that the heart carries with it a certain degree of compassion are committed to this effort to get this done. Those who think differently will try to stop it."
Still, some conservatives defend the right of Americans to protest and speak out in this manner, comparing the current health care fight to the civil rights movement when African-Americans took to the streets to stand up against injustices. Clyburn, who was active in the civil rights movement, rejects the comparison.
"We campaigned and politicked and protested, but we never ever attempted to talk over people, [never] attempted to threaten people; we never hung anybody in effigy," Clyburn said. "We were respectful of the process. We just decided to challenge the laws, not trample upon the rights of others."
To his Republican opponents in Congress, and one of his Republican counterparts from South Carolina, Sen. Jim DeMint, Clyburn says they had their chance under the Bush administration, when Republicans controlled both the House and the Senate, to push through health care reforms. Now, he urges opponents to either engage in civil discourse or step aside.