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Accused of Hiding During Recess, Congressmen Now Considering Health Care Town Halls

Rep. Dan Boren holds a town hall meeting

Dozens of congressmen have been using their lengthy summer recess to play hide-and-seek with voters, avoiding the spotlight and spite that have greeted some politicians who returned home to discuss health care reform.

Those days, it appears, are over.

Facing pressure from voters and hostile local editorial writers, more and more members of Congress appear to be wilting in the heat of the health care summer and are opening up to the sometimes hostile public forums.

"Part of the responsibility of being in public office is listening to people, and sometimes the listening isn't pleasant," said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics.

Supporters of the health care legislation being formed in the House and Senate have faced angry questions and accusations at town halls on the subject. Notably among them was Sen. Arlen Specter, D-Pa., who was called a tyrant and was warned of God's coming wrath over his vote on health care.

The difficult forums made many politicians wary of hosting their own. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., who said organized protesters were prepared to take over the town halls and "shout and shove" their way to the podium, called the public meetings a waste of his time.

"The people who are showing up at these town meetings are not looking for dialogue. They're looking for diatribe," Durbin said. "I don't think that's a productive use of my time."

But despite worries that they are a forum for seething crowds, public health care town halls are becoming all the rage.

Rep. Ed Markey was singled out Saturday by the Milford Daily News in Massachusetts as "a senior member of the House committee that wrote the health care bill (who) has yet to schedule a public meeting on the topic."

But the Massachusetts Democrat's office told FOXNews.com that such a meeting is now in the works.

"Rep. Markey also plans on hosting a substantive and informative forum on national health care policy in the near future," said Markey spokesman Daniel Reilly.

Some representatives have also dabbled in tele-town halls, giant phone-in events where constituents can hear from their congressmen and a lucky few get to pose questions.

"It's better than nothing, but I don't think it's as effective as having a town hall in person," said Sabato. "There's just nothing like coming face to face with your congressman."

In the telephone events, randomly selected constituents are robocalled and invited to join the conversation, allowing the representatives to reach a large audience -- but still protecting them from direct contact with the public.

"You couldn't get 2,400 people together in such a convenient fashion," said Steve Katich, a spokesman for Rep. Marcy Kaptur, D-Ohio, who spoke to thousands of constituents on a massive call in August. Katich said that in-person events sometimes draw six people, a tiny fraction of the reach of their call.

But a few representatives who tried the tele-town halls have been raked over the coals by voters and local press and now are ready to try the public forum.

"Some of the folks said recently that we're hiding. People who know Marcy Kaptur know that's simply not the case," her spokesman told FOXNews.com. Kaptur is planning to hold regularly scheduled town halls in September or October.

Rep. Paul Hodes, D-N.H., held a private health care discussion with residents of a single retirement home in Hanover in early August, but he has held no large in-person public forum.

"[Is he] reluctant to hear unfiltered, unscreened questions and feedback on this important bill from their constituents?" asked an editorial Sunday in the New Hampshire Union Leader.

"He's not running scared," said Mark Bergman, the communications director for Hodes who told FOXNews.com that such a forum was in the planning process and noted Hodes' tele-town halls and talk radio appearances. "He is engaged on this issue -- he is talking to folks and hearing from all sides."

Democratic Rep. Carol Shea-Porter, Hodes' colleague in the Granite State, didn't hold any in-person meetings on health care during the first weeks of her recess, choosing instead to conduct a tele-town hall, which the congresswoman's office said will reach more voters.

But local papers weren't impressed by her plans to phone it in.

"The whole concept of a telephone town hall meeting is flawed," read an editorial Sunday in the Portsmouth Herald of New Hampshire, which faulted Shea-Porter for essentially "hounding" her opponent at town halls before her first election, but refusing to engage in the meetings now.

Shea-Porter, like other representatives who have been under the gun during their usually casual recess, is now expected to hold town halls before the end of summer.

Sabato, of the University of Virginia, said he was pleased to see the burst in attention for congressional town halls -- the most they've ever gotten in his lifetime.

"I think the ones not doing it are missing an opportunity," he told FOXNews.com. "We do live in a representative democracy. That's the way it's supposed to work."