President Obama’s own campaign spinoff organization on Tuesday descended on a town-hall meeting in Northern Virginia, handing out hundreds of hand-painted signs that said “reform now” and “vote yes on HR 3200,” the massive health care bill tabled in the House before its summer recess.
Several workers passed out the homemade signs at the back of a high school gym shortly before a town hall featuring former Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean.
“The signs are from Organizing for America,” said one woman handing them out, but she would not give her name, saying, “I don’t feel comfortable doing that.”
The push by the organization was part of a major effort by supporters to sway the debate, which has sent the president’s approval rating on a free fall and threatened to crush the cornerstone of his lofty agenda of change. Proponents plan to hold about 500 events nationwide before lawmakers return to Washington after Labor Day in an effort to build support.
But opposition to a government takeover of health care has exploded across the country, with angry opponents blasting the plan in rowdy town halls. Polls show support for the plan dropping fast as Americans begin to question the staggering cost of the program, estimated at upward of $2 trillion over the first 10 years.
Tuesday’s town hall at South Lakes High School in Reston, 20 miles west of Washington, was explosive before it even began. Thirty minutes before Mr. Dean and the local congressman arrived, hundreds of people on one side of the gym began chanting: “We can’t afford it!” Hundreds more on opposite bleachers began their own chant: “Yes, we can!” deploying Mr. Obama’s campaign slogan.
“No, we can’t! No, we can’t!” people chanted back from the first side of the bleachers.
The feisty town hall came on a day when the Obama administration announced the federal government’s deficit will be $9 trillion over 10 years - $2 trillion higher than previously announced. Mr. Obama made no comment on the change; he was vacationing in a $20 million house in Martha’s Vineyard, Mass.
As the president sat down to dinner at the Sweet Life restaurant after a round of golf, more than 2,000 residents of Virginia’s 8th Congressional D istrict crowded the gym, appearing almost equally split over the reform proposal. One man held up a sign that said: “Obama lies, grandma dies”; another held aloft one that said simply: “Thank you.” The latter sign bore the Organizing for America Web site address.
The event was raucous from the beginning, despite organizers’ attempts to rein in the crowd by distributing sheets of paper with George Washington’s “rules of civility” - which included No. 4, “use no reproachful language.”
The crowd was in no mood to be silenced, even booing the opening prayer by a local rabbi.
“This is going to be a fun night,” said Rep. James P. Moran, a former boxer. “A long night,” Mr. Dean muttered.
Mr. Moran sought to explain the legislation now under consideration, but was booed repeatedly. “No one will lose their health care,” he said before being drowned out by boos. “No one will be required to join the public option,” he said, breaking off as the crowd’s booing reached a crescendo.
“Liar!” someone shouted. “Shut up!” others yelled.
When he tried to explain the cost - at least $100 billion a year, some estimates say twice that - Mr. Moran declared “that cost is fully paid for.”
The crowd burst out into loud laughter, again drowning out the congressman.
“Nine trillion debt!” one man yelled.
“There is no rationing of care in this plan!” Mr. Moran yelled to more boos, declaring other rumors of a “death panel” by “so-called political leaders” just “nonsense.”
Mr. Dean, who was lustily booed when he was introduced and sensed the impatience of the crowd after a 30-minute speech by Mr. Moran, kept his comments brief, then opened the floor to questions.
Chaos erupted as Mr. Moran began reading a question pulled from a cardboard box, despite having pledged to allow the authors to ask their own questions.
“Let us speak! Let us speak!” one man yelled.
After some confusion, Mr. Moran called a constituent to the microphone. But at just the same time, a major upheaval rocked the crowd. “Randall Terry is here,” Mr. Moran said, pointing out the man he called “abortion-rights radical.”
“Please leave, Mr. Terry,” the congressman said, sweating and red-faced, before offering him five minutes to make a statement at the top of the question-and-answer session. “Kick him out! Kick him out!” the crowd chanted.
When calm was restored, a woman asked why America can’t have a health care system more like Europe. Neither Mr. Moran or Mr. Dean answered the question, but Mr. Dean later offered: “I’ve long wanted to ask Congress to put in the Swiss system.”
Calm didn’t last long. After asking for a “Miss Appleton” to come to the stage to read her question, a woman took the microphone and began to speak. “Oh, I don’t think you’re Miss Appleton!” Mr. Moran said. “You’re not Miss Appleton!”
The crowd booed loudest whenever the “public option” was mentioned. But Mr. Dean told The Washington Times earlier Tuesday that “we’re going to pass a bill and the bill is going to have a public option.”
The former Vermont governor said he was sure Mr. Obama would push for the public option because “facts matter to him,” and without real reform, a bill is “just shoveling money into the insurance industry.”
Also earlier in the day, Democratic Rep. Gerald E. Connolly held a more civilized town-hall meeting at a Springfield retirement community, answering questions about whether seniors would be able to keep their current insurance coverage under the president’s plan.
A freshman Democrat who represents Virginia’s 11th Congressional District, Mr. Connolly argued for a taxpayer-funded “public” insurance option and warned that inaction was the riskier course.
“The cost of doing nothing is that these costs continue to rise, and more and more Americans can’t access the health care they need,” he said.
Christina Bellantoni and Kristi Jourdan contributed to this article.