Lawmakers battled Sunday over whether demonstrations against health care reform legislation at town hall meetings across the country are real or contrived.
One prominent Democrat continued to assert that scenes in which protesters are interrupting and shouting at reform proponents are "clearly being orchestrated," while the top Senate Republican said it's "absurd" for Democrats to criticize members of the public for being organized.
The fresh round of debate over the heated summertime sessions comes after a meeting in Des Moines with Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin was interrupted several times by critics in the audience. He drew outrage Saturday when he told the crowd there is a "nationally coordinated effort" to disrupt the town halls.
"How dare you claim that I'm part of a conspiracy," one man yelled, claiming he sent himself to the meeting.
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, Ky., told "FOX News Sunday" that it's not clear who's organized and who's not but that Democrats' efforts to "demonize" the protesters reflect weak spots in the substance of their plan.
"I think attacking citizens in our country for expressing their opinions about an issue of this magnitude may indicate some weakness in their position on the merits," McConnell said. "And I also think it's particularly absurd for the Democrats, who have over an $8 million e-mail list over at the DNC called Organize America, to be criticizing citizens for being organized."
He said concerns over how the plan will be paid for are probably triggering a lot of the passion and tempers at the meetings, and predicted the tension will not slacken -- with dozens of other town hall meetings scheduled throughout the month of August.
However, McConnell said neither side should be trying to disrupt the meetings. Rather, he said they should be focusing on the issues.
Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said there are plenty of Americans who just want to attend the meetings and ask "honest questions" about health care reform. But he said they're being squeezed out by an organized opposition movement.
"This is clearly being orchestrated and these folks have instructions," he said on CNN's "State of the Union," adding that it's not right for those who are part of that movement to disrupt the meetings.
"When there are a group of people honestly sitting in the middle trying to ask the important questions and get the right answers, and instead someone takes the microphone and screams and shouts to the point where the meeting comes to an end, that isn't dialogue, that isn't the democratic process," Durbin said. "You know, we need to respect free speech, but we need to respect one another's rights to free speech too. When these people come in just to disrupt the meetings, no, that isn't right."
Democrats have said some of the outrage is "manufactured" and accused Republicans of sanctioning "mob" tactics and trying to sabotage the democratic process.
But while some conservative groups have encouraged people to show up at the meetings and let the lawmakers know about their opposition, recent polls suggest everyday Americans are indeed losing confidence in the administration's health care agenda.
Rep. Joe Sestak, D-Pa., who is mounting a primary challenge against Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter, told FOX News that these town hall meetings are critical. He said lawmakers should not be backing down from them.
"I like these town halls, and I cherish them actually," he said. "This bill is so important to the future that we should be having tough debates."
Sestak said Democrats need to do a better job explaining the "goodness" of the legislation.
Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., said lawmakers "should not fear" the meetings during the August recess.
"What we should be doing in August is engaging our constituents," she told FOX News.
The tension over pending health care reform legislation boiled over at other meetings Saturday.
Hundreds of people crowded into a meeting in Memphis hosted by Rep. Steve Cohen. The forum was scheduled to address constituents' concerns about Social Security and veterans' benefits, but it quickly turned into a shouting match over health care reform.
Democratic Rep. Ed Perlmutter was at a grocery store in Colorado, on Saturday for informal chats with constituents. Some people protested the proposed health care overhaul and likened it to socialism.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.