- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 23, 2009

LAWRENCEVILLE, Va. | Rep. Tom Perriello is a no.

Even though he’s a freshman Democrat in Congress, a mere seven months into office, he’s a no. And even though he won by a whisker - 727 votes - in a rural central and Southside Virginia congressional district, he’s still a no.

What’s unusual is that the babyfaced congressman in the scuffed-up work boots holding court in a small gymnasium on Saturday afternoon is wielding some hefty clout.

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“I joined with other freshmen to state our fear that if there’s an attempt to bring this up [the health care reform bill] before August, we’d all be nos across the board,” he told Democratic leaders in Congress. “If I didn’t get re-elected, I could live with that.”

The freshmen’s move may have played a part in what House Speaker Nancy Pelosi did in late July. She tabled the reform bill until at least September, giving dozens of skittish Democrats an opportunity to return home to take the pulse in their districts during their August recess.

While some leading Democrats have not held town-hall meetings, the 34-year-old Mr. Perriello - a libertarian at heart who says he became a Democrat “basically when I decided to run” - says he’s on pace to hold more town-hall meetings on health care than any other member of Congress - 21 in all by the time Congress returns next month.

What he’s hearing is - well, everything.

“Consensus?” he says with a laugh. “There’s no consensus, anywhere.” Having already held 14 town halls across his sprawling district, he says the input he’s received from more than 3,000 people breaks down into three basic categories.

“From the right, they’re concerned about the role of government; from the left, it’s corporate responsibility; and from the middle, it’s the cost,” he said Saturday as he arrived at a Southside Virginia Community College campus.

The August recess has turned into a high-wire act for congressional Democrats. The party is struggling to hang on to its liberal base, which makes the public health care option crucial, while also trying to hang on to seats the party has picked up over the last two election cycles.

Liberal activist groups such as MoveOn.org have publicly denounced skeptical Democratic lawmakers, but town halls across the country have brought out fierce lobbying by conservative constituents, who have been well organized and very vocal.

Mr. Perriello has seen it all during his “vacation.” He’s sat through 5 1/2-hour town halls, some jammed with 1,200 people, but his eyes lit up just a bit when he saw his afternoon crowd for Saturday: just 25 or so, all packed near the microphone in the front section of 240 chairs. (The event was relocated 48 hours before it began, leading some to speculate that some didn’t know the new location.)

“Phew, OK, let’s go,” he said. And off they went.

“I want some answers: How’s it going to be paid for?” said an angry Jim Carlo, his hands shaking a bit. “The government is spending money like toilet paper. … I’m ashamed to be a Democrat.”

Jeanette Hamman, 79, a former nurse from Ebony, Va., seconded the point. “I don’t understand how we can spend all this money,” she said.

And what’s more, she wanted to know if her congressman had even bothered to read the bill, “the whole umpty-ump pages?”

Mr. Perriello had a ready answer.

“I’ve read all three versions of the bill, and that’s not fun,” he told the sparse crowd. Over the course of the next 2 1/2 hours, the freshman took the crowd through the bill, sometimes point by point, other times from a bird’s-eye view.

He assuaged fears about an overhaul of Medicare, told constituents the legislation won’t set up health care for illegal immigrants (although he said President Obama’s proposal “completely punts on that issue”) and assured the crowd that, contrary to former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin’s charge, there will be no “death panels.”

Still, suddenly empowered constituents weighing in on health care reform minced no words.

“If George Washington and his buddies came back today … they’d say, ‘What in the world are you doing to our great country?’ ” said Roy Warwick of Gasburg, who was wearing a baseball hat and a T-shirt that said simply “America.”

And Mr. Perriello got an earful from 71-year-old Mary von Grabill of South Hill. “Not all Democrats support the national health care reform President Obama is trying to push through Congress,” she told her congressman, nearly 40 years her junior.

Even when a huge electrical storm blew through the area, knocking out lights and power to the microphones in the gym, Mr. Perriello relaxed, content to sit on a small stage and listen. But he returned again and again to his own doubts, echoing the occasionally angry rants by fed-up citizens.

“Being for health care reform doesn’t mean there aren’t ways to do it that would make it worse rather than better,” he said. Still, he declared that he’s “desperate for health care reform.”

“I really do want to be a yes, but I’ve got to believe that we’ve got to adhere to some principles,” he said.

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