By Tom Curry National affairs writer
updated 5/17/2011 12:13:26 PM ET 2011-05-17T16:13:26

First-term Republican Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler faced down some catcalls and booing at a two-hour town hall meeting with about 500 constituents Monday night at Skyview High School in Vancouver, Wash.

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With a crowd that seemed sharply divided between her allies and her opponents, Herrera Beutler calmly explained the budget plan offered by House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan, for which she voted last month.

One man shouted "Liar!" when she said that the Ryan plan "protects Medicare." And when she said, "If you are 55 or older right now, your Medicare won't change," a man shouted out "Our children's will."

After another round of heckling, she said calmly, "If you want to hear the facts, you are going to have to let me speak." And as the evening wore on they did let her speak and several people got to ask her questions, but in some cases it was a matter of irreconcilable differences.

Several people in the crowd said they wanted a single-payer government health insurance system. The Ryan Medicare redesign "perpetuates the for-profit private insurance system" complained Phil Scott, a retired computer programmer from East Vancouver, Wash., who got to ask the first question in the question-and-answer session.

Story: Rep. Ryan: Gingrich misunderstood Medicare plan

The loudest round of boos may have come when a member of the audience got up and said "Thank you for voting to defund NPR (National Public Radio)," prompting Herrera Beutler to say, "I've enjoyed programming on NPR," but "we're broke" and therefore all spending must be reduced.

Her former high school principal also showed up, telling Herrera Beutler, "I think you're drinking that Republican Kool Aid," and scolding her for referring to last year's health care law as "Obamacare," which he felt was a pejorative term.

But the Ryan plan, and especially its effect on Medicare, was the principal focus. In her remarks about the Ryan plan, she told the crowd, "Some people will call it radical."

But in an interview after the meeting, she said she had not been alluding to the remarks made by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who on Meet the Press Sunday called the Ryan plan "radical" and "right-wing social engineering."

Video: Gingrich: Ryan’s Medicare proposal is ‘too big a jump’

Herrera Beutler said she had not heard or read Gingrich's comments.

Asked whether her view on the Ryan plan had changed since the day of the vote, she said, "I feel the same about it as the day I voted for it. Have I ever said it was perfect? No. But I also recognized coming to Congress that we’re going to have make tough choices. Medicare is facing bankruptcy. We're broke. It's never a fun message to deliver."

She added, "This is one solution. It's the only that I’ve seen come out of Congress." But in her comments to the town hall she signaled openness to debating and modifying Ryan's blueprint: "This is the beginning, not the end of this conversation."

A safer District in the works?
Taking over what had been a Democratic district, Herrera Beutler won her seat last year with 53 percent of the vote, defeating Democrat Denny Heck. In last year’s campaign the National Republican Congressional Committee blasted Heck for his support of President Barack Obama's health care overhaul, which aims to cut Medicare spending by $500 billion over 10 years.

Now Medicare has come back as an issue Herrera Beutler must contend with.

Despite the catcalls and boos from some in the crowd, her vote for the Ryan plan may not expose her to quite as much risk as some of her freshman Republican colleagues in other districts around the nation.

Story: Special report: Stuck between the Tea Party and a hard place

Come next year Herrera Beutler could be running in a more comfortable district thanks to redistricting, which in Washington State is done by a four-person bipartisan commission.

With the state gaining one seat in the House, one configuration would be to create a new district that would include the Olympia area, removing the most Democratic part of Herrera Beutler's district. "If Olympia is carved out of the district, we're going to be stuck with right-wing Republicans for quite a while," said Scott.

"We don't have a candidate right now" in this district, said Washington state Democratic Party chairman Dwight Pelz, although he mentioned Clark County commissioner Steve Stuart as one possible contender. The reconfigured district is likely to be "more red (Republican), but still swing," he said.

Herrera Beutler said her votes aren't influenced by the possible future tilt of her district.

"I'm not taking votes based on getting re-elected," she said. Instead she said she is "doing the right thing by the people I represent both today and the people I will represent in 2012."

Like other first-term GOP House members, she has pledged not to vote raise the federal government's borrowing limit without some spending cuts. If presented with a vote to raise the debt ceiling, "with no strings attached, I'm going to vote no," she told the crowd.

In his question to Herrera Beutler, Scott said, "We didn't have a deficit in 2000, but since then we've had two wars and tax cuts, it seems to me if we end the wars and roll back the tax cuts, we can solve our problem."

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She replied, "We need to take an honest hard look at Pentagon spending." But she said she would not touch pay or benefits for uniformed personnel.

She said she has talked to Vermont Democrat Rep. Peter Welch about co-sponsoring a bill to cut Defense Department "fat."

"When there's a bureaucracy or a bloated budget we need to be willing to go to it," she said. "We're working on it. Our hope is to get something introduced."

She also told the crowd that the Ryan plan "proposes to close subsidies and tax cuts for these big corporations who aren't paying taxes." She added, in a crowd-pleasing remark, "If you're Exxon Mobil or you're GE you need to pay your fair share of taxes."

In her one-on-one conversations with constituents after the town hall meeting ended, it was clear that for some of her critics, the era of George W. Bush is still a preoccupation. 

Kim Kendall, an engineer, sparred with Herrera Beutler for five minutes, trying to get her to agree that the current deficit and debt predicament was caused by military spending (on Afghanistan and Iraq), the tax cuts enacted in 2001 and 2003, and the huge fiscal response to the financial crisis — not by Medicare.

"I will agree with you that both parties have gotten us here," Herrera Beutler patiently told him. "We’re probably going to disagree on how we got here, but the reality is we’re here."

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