A few minutes before 11:30 Tuesday morning a member of Congressman Pat Meehan's staff said "I think we have more press here than public." By the time the freshman republican took the floor in the 's Council Chambers the audience had grown to about twenty members of the public.
Radnor was the second stop in a marathon day of five Meehan town hall meetings covering all three counties in Pennsylvania's Seventh Congressional District. It was nothing like the raucous congressional town halls that made headlines during the Easter recess one year ago. That was just after the passage of the democrat's sweeping change to the healthcare system often called "Obamacare." Meehan said this year's pre-recess vote in the house to cut federal spending was also historic.
A year ago voters were engaged in town halls and public forums at headline-grabbing levels. 2010 was an election year. This year Meehan and his colleagues in Washington are faced with the daunting task of governing, and specfically debating the federal budget. While that doesn't always make for splashy headlines it made for the substance of the policy question and answers Tuesday in Radnor.
First, a woman in the crowd questioned Meehan's opposition to federal funding to which provides women's health care services as well as abortions. Meehan defended his record on women's issues saying that when he was the U.S. Attorney for Southeastern Pennsylvania he spearheaded many efforts to protect women from violence and rape.Meehan said it was a tough vote, but that he opposed funding Planned Parenthood because it also provided federal funding for abortions.
Tackling a question on how he would vote on raising the debt ceiling on the ballooning deficit, Meehan said that Congress will most likely have to raise the federal debt ceiling, forcing the nation deeper into debt. He told the small crowd that despite that, republicans have done something that may not have ever been done in the nation's history by at least starting a debate on cutting federal spending, including entitlements like Medicare and Medicaid.
Meehan was quick to point out to the audience of people mostly older than 50 that there would be no mandatory changes in those programs to people who are currently age 55 or over.
Asked if he would vote against raising the debt ceiling unless Congress votes first to cut spending Meehan said "I don't want to see us default on our debt." He added that "I don't know what's going to happen (with the debt ceiling vote)."
Meehan acknowledged that some conservatives are not happy with the 2011 budget continuing resolution that was passed last week in the House cutting $39 billion instead of $61 billion. He called the vote historic. One of the realities is that we (republicans) have been able to open legislation to start the debate."
Meehan is part of the largest freshman class in the modern political era, giving the GOP control of the House in a 2010 election that President Obama called a "shellacking" for his party.
In an interview with Patch after the town hall, Meehan said "the idea that the freshman have come and actually had an impact is a pretty positive thing. I'm not sure how everybody will read into it but I think we had the ability to influence some policy right from the get-go." Meehan emphasized a point he made during the town hall discussion."The bottom line is the House is one third of the dynamic. I think expectations need to be realistic and I think that there was a substantial change in the direction of the spending is a significant accomplishments and (there are) great challenges ahead."
Meehan received a round of applause from the crowd to thank him for coming to Radnor. Minutes later one voter stopped the Congressman outside the door of the Municipal Building to let him know she was unhappy with some of what she heard. Jan Hartman of Radnor said "he spoke for nine minutes (about the budget proposal from House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan) and never answered the question." Hartman describes herself as a conservative who voted for Meehan. She was disappointed by Meehan's responses and told him so as both walked to their cars.
Hartman, who owns Flag Lady Gifts in Wayne said "I went up there to learn more about his positions." After the hour long session Hartman said she came away having learned nothing new. "He's schooled in 'don't answer the questions'."
Frank Tait of Radnor was satisfied with what he heard during the meeting. "He's a politician," Tait said. "Politicans try to walk the line and not alienate voters. I'm encouraged on the spending. We stopped the growth. We started the cutback but it needs to be deeper."
The budget resolution passed in the republican controlled House last week with no democrat support.It now goes to the senate where democrats hold a majority.
For many who voted for a change last November the slow nature of governing is frustrating. Meehan said this crop of congressional newcomers has made a difference but changing the direction of the debate from how to spend more to how to cut spending is significant. He emphasized that last week's vote is only the beginning of the process of debating the federal budget. He said that freshmen are being heard and playing an important role in what he described as an ultimately unified republican caucus. Only four republicans opposed the budget measure to fund the government for the rest of fiscal year 2011. No democrats voted for it.
While changes may not be coming fast enough for some voters, Meehan said republicans are being heard and making an impact in Congress for the first time since Barack Obama took office. "It's been more invigorating than I thought. They've given us (freshmen republicans) a chance to play a meaningful role. But the bottom line is we're one third. The House is one third of the dynamic."
That is where the 2012 election will come into play. Next year's Easter Recess town halls may have a very different feel and crowds in the midst of a presidential election year.