Supporters of Health-Care Change Prepare Counterattack

The opposition to the health-care overhaul being voiced at town-hall meetings this month caught supporters by surprise.

Unions and other supporters of the Democratic health program now have plans to confront opponents, including, if necessary, outshouting them at meetings.

Liberal groups have been taken off guard at recent town-hall meetings by the aggressive tactics used by conservatives opposing Obama’s health plan. But now they’re fighting back, WSJ’s Naftali Bendavid reports.

The AFL-CIO has allocated $15 million for mobilization and communication. Individual unions plan to advertise in states with moderate Democratic lawmakers. The Service Employees International Union is sending members to more than 400 events this month, including an “ambulance tour” across Montana, home of Democratic Sen. Max Baucus, a key player in the health debate.

“America deserves an honest, civil discussion on how to fix our broken health-care system,” said SEIU President Andy Stern.

Health Care for America Now, a coalition of groups supporting President Barack Obama’s health push, said Thursday it was expanding an ad campaign in the home states of key lawmakers. The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees kicked off a “highway to health care” bus tour Wednesday.

“We are absolutely surprised at the way that the right focused so much on this as soon as August began,” said Richard Kirsch, campaign manager for HCAN.

Liberal groups are dispatching members to town-hall meetings with the goal of persuading lawmakers that they are the majority. They are supplying signs that can be printed from Web sites, telling members to buttonhole reporters, and giving suggestions for confronting adversaries.

“Interrupt them when they get disruptive and refocus the meeting,” HCAN says in one message to members. “Line up a number of people who feel comfortable interrupting and prepare them with statements.”

Mr. Obama himself is holding town meetings, heading to Montana on Friday and Colorado on Saturday. Some progressives grumble that Mr. Obama and his allies should have been better prepared for the backlash to the health-care plans.

Stephen Gauthier, a machinist with General Electric Co. and a member of the industrial union IUE-CWA, joined several hundred union members Tuesday outside a Portsmouth, N.H., high school where Mr. Obama was holding a town meeting.

“We’re primarily trying to keep it orderly and decent,” said Mr. Gauthier, 58, as supporters chanted “health care for all” and opponents shouted anti-Obama comments. “There are protesters here that are just disrupting the solution.”

Opponents of the health-care proposals say they’re skeptical that supporters can match their passion and turnout.

“People only come out if they really care,” said Amy Menefee, spokeswoman for Americans for Prosperity, which encourages conservatives to attend the meetings. “It will be interesting to see if the people on the other side will take time off from work and drive long distances.”

Democrats depict the protesters as hooligans whipped into a frenzy by conservative groups, while Republicans describe them as ordinary citizens fed up with Mr. Obama’s overreaching.

FreedomWorks, a conservative group that asks members to attend town-hall meetings, issued a sarcastic “apology” Tuesday to liberals. “Apparently, the very act of showing up and having an opinion is, in effect, to act like a ‘thug,’ ” the group said.

Liberals are hoping to turn the tide before Congress returns to Washington in September, and are even giving members of Congress tips for limiting ugly confrontations, such as holding their town meetings in churches. “It’s much harder for people to scream expletives and bring swastikas into a church,” Mr. Kirsch said.

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