STATE COLLEGE, Pa. (AP) — Sen. Arlen Specter heard a fresh chorus of taunts Wednesday from opponents of health care reform and said they were “not necessarily representative of America” but should be heard.
Critics lobbed a barrage of now-familiar verbal jabs at the Republican-turned-Democrat during a more-than-90-minute session at a Penn State University conference center. Some opponents said the overhaul that could cost billions of dollars was unwise at a time when the economy was in recession. Others accused Specter of failing to do homework in trying to rush through legislation.
Speaking on CBS’ “Early Show” before the meeting, Specter said he was “impressed with the fact that people have been very well prepared.” Many have come to meetings with copies of the legislation and have cited specific provisions in their arguments.
In State College, some people read lengthy statements before posing a question. One woman handed Specter a copy of the Constitution. A few questioners praised Specter for facing detractors before relaying their own criticism.
The most vocal of the more than 400 attendees jeered Specter. The forum at times turned into a shouting and hissing match between supporters and critics.
“Traditionally people who come to town meetings have objections,” Specter said after the event. “They may not be representative of America, but they are significant, and their views have to be taken into account.”
Justin Patterson, 28, of Bellefonte was the first of nearly 30 questioners and said members of Congress should experiment themselves with a single-payer option “instead of making us a guinea pig.”
His comment incited howls.
Specter responded that Congress had bypassed a July deadline set by President Barack Obama, and that lawmakers were using August to hear from constituents. While he favors a single-payer option, Specter said it has little support in Congress.
“No has ever accused me of not doing my homework,” he said to a smattering of applause. “I've worked hard … to consider what you want done and to represent the people of my state.”
“Who has Number Two?” Specter then asked abruptly, a signal that he was ready to move to the next question.
The contentious sessions underscore the challenge for Democrats as they try to sway an increasingly skeptical public on costly proposals to revamp the nation's health care system.
Randy Hook, 50, of Hopewell, said he was a U.S. military veteran whose wife had a heart transplant two years ago. He said one of the main problems with health care was “out-of-control lawsuits that not one politician has dared to touch.”
“What about the money and speed of all this? If this is for the people, what's the big hurry?” Hook asked.
Specter said Hook, as a veteran, was the beneficiary of the government-run veterans health care system, and that Hook's wife, as a transplant patient, received help from the state government.
“We're slowing down. We're taking our time to do it right," Specter said.
It was the third town hall in two days for Specter, who received similar reactions at his other stops. Specter said he tried to defuse tensions Wednesday with a few jokes, especially after his first stop
Tuesday in Lebanon when he said “he did not know what to expect.”
Seeing people who had also attended Tuesday's forums, Specter said, “I consider it a compliment that you want to come back.”
At one point, he even jokingly booed himself in front of reporters as a way of poking fun at the reaction he has been getting.
Specter, who once finished second in a Washington celebrity stand-up comedy contest, said afterward the change in disposition was intentional.
“I was able to find a few lighter moments … to ease up on some of the pressure," he said. “I don't want to overdo it. I don't want to make that anything is funny or trivial.”