The Oklahoman: Oklahoma town hall crowds continue to question Congress

Apr 11, 2010
In The News

WASHINGTON — Though the crowds have abated somewhat since last summer and the screaming has mostly stopped, recent town hall meetings in Oklahoma were still dominated by fear and loathing, according to members of Oklahoma’s congressional delegation who have been traveling the state.

"I think the intensity is still there,” said U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Muskogee. "I don’t think it’s wavering at all.”

Coburn did town hall meetings in the past two weeks in northeastern and central Oklahoma, while U.S. Reps. Tom Cole and Frank Lucas were all over their congressional districts, in towns stretching from Taloga to Waurika.

"They’re questioning the system, questioning whether Washington is responsive to their will,” Cole, R-Moore, said of his constituents. "It makes it a ferociously anti-incumbent mood.”

Lucas, R-Cheyenne, said the mood of his people is "a combination of mad and scared.”

They’re not angry at him, he said, since he, like the rest of the Oklahoma congressional delegation, have opposed most of the major legislative initiatives in the past 15 months.

"They’re not shouting at me,” Lucas said. "They’re shouting with me.”

Coburn, Cole and Lucas said their crowds, though smaller than last summer, when the debate over health care reform was in its relatively early stages, are still much bigger than in most previous years. And, though people are still venting about what’s now a health care law, they are also concerned about issues like energy, immigration and the question of government’s reach, the lawmakers said.

"I think we’re really in a profound debate over how big the federal government’s going to be,” Cole said. "People do not like the direction the country is moving in.”

Coburn said he saw more fear than anger at his meetings. The fear now isn’t so much about themselves and what’s going to happen to them, he said, but about the future.

"People are looking at the next generation,” he said. "It’s real refreshing.”

Congress returns this week after a two-week spring break.

The Senate on Monday has a procedural vote scheduled on an impasse over extending unemployment benefits. Coburn, who helped block a Democratic attempt to pass the benefits as emergency spending, said he expected Democrats to prevail.

Coburn received attention for comments he made at one town hall meeting aimed at depersonalizing the anger toward Washington. He called House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., a nice person and President Barack Obama "a great friend.”

He also urged people to seek balance in their news sources, warning against getting information exclusively from Fox News.

Cole said his constituents "are more critical of the president than I’ve ever seen. He’s just not connecting out there.”

But he said, "It’s not that people are very happy with Republicans. There’s a strong sense of, ‘The leaders of both parties have let us down.’”

Lucas agreed, saying, "They’re unhappy with Washington in general. … They’re fired up and loaded for bear.”

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