GOP Dismisses Heckling at Town Hall Meetings as 'Astroturfing'

Rep. Paul Ryan, architect of a budget proposal that would revamp social safety-net programs, and other Republican lawmakers have continued to face heckling at town hall meetings this week, prompting at least one GOP aide to accusing liberal groups of orchestrating the disruptions.

"I think it's pretty clear," said Shawn Kelly, spokesman for Rep. Lou Barletta, R-Pa., "If you go to MoveOn's website, there's a whole page there on how to create anger about Medicare reform."

Barletta faced outbursts at two of his town hall meetings, leading police to remove hecklers.

Kelly called it "astroturfing," -- or disingenuous grassroots opposition organized by legislative opponents.

"I think that's ridiculous," said Lauren Weiner, a spokesman for Americans United for Change, a D.C.-based progressive group that has targeted several Republicans with TV ads and robo-calls. "The anger is real."

Weiner noted that the GOP-led House just approved the Ryan plan two weeks ago with many people still unaware about the details.

"We think the anger is going to grow," she said. "The more they learn about it, the angrier they're going to get."

The GOP plan envisions cutting government deficits by a total $6.2 trillion over the next decade. One of its most contentious provisions calls for eventually transforming Medicare into a voucher-like system in which private insurance plans, not the government, pay medical bills.  The plan would also cut social safety-net programs such as food stamps and Medicaid.The plan has drawn scorn from Democrats, including President Obama, who want wealthier Americans to pay higher taxes to help reduce the deficit.

Liberal groups haven't been shy about their intention to turn the town hall fury that inflamed the health care debate two summers ago against Republicans over their deficit-reduction plan.

In an email to members, and obtained by, entitled "Payback time," MoveOn says the 2009 town halls will go down in the history of health care reform as a "key moment."

"Cable news played the clips over and over," the group wrote. "Now it's payback time."

The email gives members the time and location of the town hall meetings, urging them to show up and let Republicans who voted for the Ryan plan know that their constituents "won't stand for it."

The email says the members should "be civil -- we don't need to yell to make our point" but adds not to let those Republicans "avoid taking responsibility" for their votes."

MoveOn did not return messages seeking comment.

"They're letting their members know about it. I think that's consistent with what progressive groups are doing," Weiner said. "Nowhere in there are they saying make a stink. Nowhere in there are they saying, 'Get thrown out.'"

At Ryan's fourth and final town hall meeting, in southeastern Wisconsin on Thursday, a small number of hecklers repeatedly interrupted him.

One person shouted, "You lie!" as Ryan talked about the future of Medicare. Another shouted, "What are you hiding?" when Ryan presented a graph about his budget plan.

But overall, most of the 850 people who showed up to the high school auditorium seemed to be Ryan supporters. They applauded when he talked about opening up American lands for oil drilling. And they gave Ryan a 30-second standing ovation, as if to send a message to the hecklers, after one person thanked him for taking a leadership role in Congress.

Ryan acknowledged the hecklers' right to speak. He said he understood he made himself a target by putting forth a substantive plan that his opponents could use as a weapon against him.

"My hope is that we will stop rewarding the politicians who keeps making empty promises to voters and start rewarding politicians who speak honestly with them," he said.

Ryan and other Republican House members have gone back to their districts over the Easter recess to explain to constituents how the plan would work. Congress reconvenes Monday.

Most of the audiences have seemed to back Ryan, hardly a surprise in an area where the seven-term congressman won his past few elections with more than 60 percent of the vote. Opponents generally voiced their opinions civilly, but Ryan did face booing in Kenosha on Tuesday along with the vocal hecklers Thursday.

At one point in Greenfield, Ryan asked for a show of hands from those over the age of 55. When more than half the attendees raised their hands, Ryan said people their age wouldn't see their Medicare benefits affected.

"What about mine?" one man shouted.

"You're bigger than that, come on," Ryan said, chiding him for his interruption.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.