LEBANON, Pa. - They booed and taunted Sen. Arlen Specter (D., Pa.), calling him a tyrant, as anger at the Democrats' proposed overhaul of the health-care system boiled over yesterday at a pair of town-hall meetings.
"This country is turning into Russia," one man said in a common refrain, standing toe to toe with Specter in a hall at the Harrisburg Area Community College campus here. Chants broke out - "You work for us!" and "Read the bill!" - as the senator tried to answer questions.
Later in the day, Specter faced similar frustrations from skeptical voters in Lewisburg in an auditorium at Bucknell University. In both places, most of the questioners stayed civil but accused President Obama, Specter, and other congressional Democrats of trying to force a government takeover of health care that would violate their constitutional rights as well as the character of the nation.
Specter, 79, is traversing the state this week during the Senate recess, an August ritual but his first trip as a Democrat. He is running for reelection in 2010, facing a primary challenge from the left in his new party from Rep. Joe Sestak.
"I'm getting an earful, and I'll take the message back," Specter deadpanned at Bucknell, where he and attendees who expressed opinions in favor of the health-care legislation were booed and peppered with catcalls.
Obama's hope to overhaul the health-care system, reducing costs and expanding coverage to the uninsured, has entered a rough patch that was underscored Aug. 2 when crowds disrupted a town-hall meeting Specter hosted in Philadelphia with Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.
Since then, some members of Congress have been shouted down, one was hanged in effigy, fistfights have broken out at some town halls around the nation, and Rep. Brad Miller (D., N.C.) reported a death threat. Protesters at a few events have displayed swastikas, seeking to compare the Obama administration to the Nazis, and a swastika was spray-painted on a sign outside a district office of Rep. David Scott (D., Ga.).
While mainstream conservatives denounce such rhetoric, polls have shown growing concerns about the health-care overhaul plans as conservative resistance has ramped up. Republican-leaning groups, including Americans for Prosperity and FreedomWorks, have organized some of the protests - saying in widely circulated memos that the purpose is to damage Obama's political standing. The White House and its allies called for labor unions to send their own supporters to town halls, and the president is traveling to stump for the effort.
Specter, accompanied at both town halls by several plainclothes Capitol Police and state troopers, said it had been difficult to explain the Democrats' plans without a specific bill to defend. The House has a version pending, but the Senate does not yet have specific legislation.
"The objectors have gotten ahead of the curve, and a rumor is hard to dispel," Specter said after the Lebanon event. "It's a lot easier to knock down a house than it is to build one. So it's a struggle. And August is going to be a critical month whether there is going to be legislation. . . . I'd say the jury is assembling. It's not out yet."
As a sign of the escalating level of noise around the issue, CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News Channel carried most of Specter's Lebanon meeting live.
About 300 people packed the hall, with several hundred outside, demonstrating for or against health-care changes. The line to get in began forming before 7 a.m. and stretched about four blocks around the community-college building in downtown Lebanon.
A woman who unfurled a banner in Lebanon told Specter, a cancer survivor, that the senator might be dead already under Obama's plan because of government boards that she said would ration care for people in their 70s and give it to those who are productive.
"Well, you're just not right," Specter snapped, moving on. "Nobody . . . will be written off. That's just a vicious, untrue rumor."
One man, angry that he was not among the 30 attendees selected at random to ask questions, walked into the aisle waving to get Specter's attention, interrupting his response to another questioner.
"Do you want to be led out of here?" Specter asked the man. "You're welcome to go."
An audience member went to grab the man, and several police officers sidled toward him but did not touch him. "Wait a minute, wait a minute," Specter said, listening to the man vent.
"I'm going to speak my mind - you're trampling on the Constitution," the man said. "You and your cronies in the government do this kind of stuff all the time." The audience cheered.
"One day, God is going to stand before you, and he's going to judge you!" the man said.
As the man left the hall, Specter said: "We've just had a demonstration of democracy."
Those two personal outbursts aside, Specter said later that he thought the audience was "more sedate" than the one that interrupted him and Sebelius at the National Constitution Center.
"I thought it was a civil crowd," Specter said.
Specter fielded 13 questions at Lebanon before one person voiced support for overhauling health care. Marilyn Boogaard, a nurse practitioner from Lebanon, said the uninsured needed primary care. After she asked her question, she said she was nervous about being booed.
"This is not exactly a good way to get information," Boogaard, 58, said later, "but I had to say something."
Several speakers at both town halls said they resented how Democrats had branded them as "mobs" whipped up by special interests.
An audience member at the Lebanon event, Robert Courtright of Manheim, who was not one of the questioners, said he did not attend out of anger but was concerned about how the government would pay for the public health-care option being discussed to compete with private insurance.
"It's so hard to grasp," he said before the event. "What are they going to do when they set up the account, and then the money gets shifted somewhere else and the bills come due? We can't pay for what we have now."
Specter reassured listeners that he would not support a health-care bill that increases the deficit, echoing Obama's stance.
The senator is likely to face more questions on the issue this morning when he holds a town hall in State College.
After yesterday's meetings, Specter said he did not remember seeing this much public anger before. People are anxious about the economy, he said, and weary of political bickering.
"You're seeing national ferment before your eyes," he said.