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Toomey, Republicans seek quieter ways to engage critics demanding town halls

Editor's note: This story has been corrected to reflect which Philadelphia area members of Congress have held town meetings since the presidential election.

WASHINGTON -- Local Republicans are finding quieter ways to engage the protesters rallying outside their offices — although not always in ways that leave the groups satisfied.

With private sit-downs, forums held online or by phone or surprise meetings, congressional Republicans from the Philadelphia area say they are responding to the outpouring of demands from constituents, only without the possibility of confronting raucous crowds intent on creating a scene.

The latest example came Monday, when Sen. Pat Toomey (R., Pa.) sat privately in Philadelphia with leaders of the most visible of the local liberal protest groups, Tuesdays With Toomey, and then took questions posted on social media while appearing on CBS3.

Neither of which quelled calls for an in-person town hall in the city, or frustration from his critics.

Toomey said he would hold a town hall in the future, but did not commit to a date or to bringing one to Philadelphia, where the second-term senator has never held such an event.

Tuesdays With Toomey wrote on Twitter that the group was "disappointed" and pledged to continue its weekly events outside his offices.

"I don't believe that Sen. Toomey really understands just how deep the frustration [is] and the very real fear that runs through a lot of his constituents right now," said Jessica Lennick, a Philadelphia resident and one of the organizers who met with the senator.

She said closed-door meetings with small groups don't do enough to let constituents across the state have their voices heard. "I think there is something very, very powerful about an elected official standing up and meeting in person ... and doing it in an uncontrolled environment."

Toomey has said he is actively communicating with constituents, particularly in tele-town halls -- essentially large-scale conference calls on which he takes questions -- and having meetings with groups representing a broad range of viewpoints.

"I'm sure we'll do an in-person town hall at some point," Toomey said in his appearance on CBS3. Asked if it would be in Philadelphia, he said, "Probably."

Others have also used discreet ways to try to answer the pressure coming from the left.

Rep. Ryan Costello of Chester County recently surprised protesters with what he called a "pop-up" town hall by meeting with them and inviting them to ask questions (as long as everyone turned off their cellphones). Rep. Frank LoBiondo of South Jersey has held a series of meetings with small groups representing the protesters outside his office. No media are allowed.

On CBS Monday, Toomey took roughly 15 minutes of questions, largely reiterating previous statements on the Affordable Care Act and Russia. He noted that about 20,000 people have listened to his tele-town halls, though critics complain that the questions are screened by aides and there is no opportunity for follow-ups.

The events, also used by nearly every local Republican, prevent the kind of confrontations that have greeted other lawmakers since President Trump's election, and that have been compared to the tea party-fueled scenes that swamped Democrats in 2009 and helped propel Toomey and others into office.

Now, Republicans from the Philadelphia area have largely avoided major public events, even as GOP colleagues in other states have stood in front of massive, and often rowdy, audiences. Local Republicans argue that protesters only want town halls so they can cause embarrassing scenes that can go viral.

Newly energized activists on the left deny that and say they want to make their voices heard and hold their officials accountable amid deep concern about Trump. Every local Republican in Congress has faced protests outside their offices.

On Monday night, Rep. Tom MacArthur of South Jersey was scheduled to become the first lawmaker from the Philadelphia area to host an in-person town hall since Trump's election.

At least one local Democrat, Rep. Donald Norcross, of South Jersey, has held recent town halls, though he and his colleagues have not faced the same kind of pressure from constituents and some others are beginning to schedule such events. Sen. Bob Casey (D., Pa.) has a town hall planned for Sunday in Philadelphia and Rep. Dwight Evans (D., Pa.) plans to attend a town hall meeting hosted by the Lower Merion Board of Commissioners Monday.

Many Republicans show no signs of bowing to any pressure.

"Individual meetings & personal calls have always been my style," LoBiondo recently wrote on Twitter. "Well-received by those who have asked to come in. No plans to change format."