WASHINGTON — U.S. Rep. Ben Chandler, D-Versailles, is in the political cross hairs as an increasingly vocal group of conservatives assails the congressman for his position on health care reform and a controversial vote on a bill aimed at reducing carbon emissions.
Chandler, an early supporter of President Barack Obama's candidacy, has found himself in the uneasy position of trying to balance his support of the administration's overall health care reform efforts with his own discomfort over proposals on how to structure and fund that reform.
Chandler is part of the Blue Dog Coalition, a group of 52 moderate-to-conservative House Democrats from largely rural or small-town districts. The group sent several cautionary letters to House leadership about the pace and shape of health care reform efforts and effectively helped stall a legislative overhaul until this fall.
Ostensibly the delay is geared toward providing lawmakers an opportunity to go home and talk with constituents in open forums about the matter during the August recess.
But Chandler has no such plans in the works. Instead, he'll meet with small groups of stakeholders to discuss their concerns.
"Congressman Chandler will continue to discuss issues with constituents at events and meetings in each county in the Sixth Congressional District as he has done every August recess in the past," said Chandler spokeswoman Jennifer Krimm.
"However, we are concerned about the lack of civility and lack of meaningful dialogue displayed at some meetings in the town hall format across the country, and there are no town hall meetings planned at this time."
Across the country, well-organized groups opposed to administration-backed health care plans have converged on traditionally sleepy August town hall meetings with lawmakers. At meetings in places like Tampa, Fla., and St. Louis, members of Congress have faced jeers, heckling and tussling crowds.
A number of lawmakers have received hate mail. Others, like Rep. Brad Miller, D-N.C., received death threats.
Chandler's Washington, D.C., office has been flooded with calls both for and against health care reform efforts.
"There are going to be boots throughout the district, and they're not going to be happy with Congressman Chandler during the August recess should he try to defend this mealy-mouth 'compromise,'" said Bill Wilson, president of Americans for Limited Government, a conservative libertarian think tank.
On Aug. 22, his group and others opposing the administration's health care reform efforts plan a nationwide recess rally at congressional offices—including Chandler's Lexington office.
The Republican National Committee also has targeted Chandler in a radio ad encouraging listeners to call his office and say no to "President Obama's dangerous health care experiment on America."
Chandler is one of the lawmakers National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Pete Sessions, R-Texas, said the GOP plans to target in its efforts to put about 80 Democratic-held House seats into play.
The NRSC thinks tough votes on heath care reform and the energy bill put lawmakers from more conservative districts and states, like Chandler, in jeopardy.
In a statement, Chandler said that before the House votes on the current version of the health care bill, "I will continue to carefully review recent changes to this legislation and get input from the people of Central Kentucky. I am not convinced, however, that this version of the bill maintains and enhances quality care for the people of Central Kentucky.
"There is no question that health care needs to be fixed — the cost of the system is already too high for our nation and our citizens to bear. The question is how we strike the balance between expanding coverage, securing consumer choice, maintaining quality care and controlling costs.
Chandler has also faced criticism from some constituents, especially those with ties to coal, over helping pass a hotly debated measure that would cap carbon emissions and fine companies that go over set limits.
"Supporting this bill was not an easy decision," Chandler said in June. "I struggled with this legislation, and I recognize the good points on both sides of the issue. But I believe we have to take this opportunity to fulfill our responsibility to be stewards of God's creation. We must invest in the future of our economy, and we have to act before the crisis gets worse.
Chandler, who was given a plum position on the powerful Appropriations committee, is seen as a rising star in the Democratic Party, said David Wasserman, the House analyst at the Cook Political Report.
But that attention has also made Chandler a target.
The Democratic National Committee has responded on behalf of Chandler and other besieged lawmakers by crafting radio ads hailing their work on getting the $787 billion economic stimulus bill passed.
"These members have been part of one of the most ambitious, historic and successful opening months of a congressional session in our nation's history," said Mitch Stewart, director of the DNC's Organizing for America project.