WASHINGTON - Making her rounds at the State Fair, talking about health care, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a Democrat, had to remind one questioner to refrain from swearing in front of her teenage daughter.
Rep. John Kline, a Republican, was heckled by several men who accused him of being in the pocket of the insurance industry. "They were screaming 'How much did they pay you,' and all that," Kline recalled. "Then they got into F-bomb country."
Weeks of cheering and jeering in town halls across the nation, deluges of phone calls and testy exchanges made this an August recess like none other for Minnesota's congressional delegation. But as they emerge from the meat grinder of the incendiary public debate on overhauling the nation's health care system, all of them are returning to Washington holding pretty much to the positions they left with a month ago.
Confronted by a group of anti-reform "Tea Party" activists about whether he would side with President Obama or "the people," Democratic Sen. Al Franken replied, "I'm going to vote the way I want to vote. ... I use my independent judgment."
As legislators convene in Washington this week to hammer out a deal, they will be starting from the remnants of five competing health reform bills.
The leading House plan, more than 1,000 pages long, is estimated to cost somewhere around $1 trillion over 10 years. All but one of the bills would include a public option to compete with private insurers, something Republicans and conservative Democrats say they can't accept.
The so-called public option is figuring large in the furious national debate, with conservatives likening it to a government takeover of health care, even a step toward European-style socialized medicine.
While opponents have largely backed away from clearly exaggerated claims about government "death panels," the root of the angst remains.
"It's rhetoric," said Kline, who delivered the GOP's national radio address Saturday. "But the underlying fear is real."
'Shhh! Read the bill!'
Digesting what happened during the confrontational month of August, reform advocates are striving to regain the political momentum for change that they had coming out of last year's election victory.
Evidence of that could be seen at Macalester College in St. Paul last week, where health reformers appeared to be the majority in an overflow crowd of several hundred outside the Weyerhaeuser Chapel. Inside, U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum vouched for the Democrats' planned health care overhaul.
Except for the occasional heckling or applause, the Monday night crowd was attentive and well-behaved.
"Read the bill!" and "Shhh!" was the basic call-and-response.
The tone was markedly different from an earlier town hall in Lake Elmo, where the two sides tried to shout each other down in front of Republican Rep. Michele Bachmann, an outspoken Obama foe who days later told a cheering crowd in Denver that Americans must "make a covenant" to block the Democrats' program.
In other states, the critics' impact has been perhaps not what was intended: In Maryland, Democratic Sen. Benjamin Cardin spent August getting yelled at and came away from the experience so offended by opponents that he says he's more determined than ever to vote for some kind of health care reform.
Obama, heeding calls to be more specific about plans that Democrats say have been mischaracterized by Republicans, will deliver a major address to Congress on Wednesday, a day after legislators return from their summer recess.
Obama's speech, designed to buck up his supporters and regain control of the health care debate, comes in the thick of a national campaign by Democratic allies to rally ground-level support around the country, including in Minnesota.
Many Obama supporters at McCollum's town hall meeting carried signs produced by Organizing for America, an arm of the Democratic National Committee, which is organizing some 2,000 events across the nation. The signs read "Standing Together for Health Insurance Reform."
Sandy Harrington, a health care activist from Falcon Heights, said she had remained outside deliberately to help confront any protesters. But opponents, including several carrying "Don't Tread on Me" flags, didn't seem to be itching for confrontation with what they regarded as an organized turnout by supporters.
One of the opponents was Lorri Zuleger of St. Paul. She said she thought the questions being asked were more balanced than at other forums, including one where she said she was asked to sign a petition of support in order to enter.
With the White House sending mixed signals about a public option, Democratic leaders in Congress face their own separate impasse: On one side are progressives like Minneapolis Democratic Rep. Keith Ellison, who sees it as a civil-rights issue that should be pressed without regard for Republican opposition; on the other are conservative "Blue Dog" Democrats like Minnesota's Rep. Collin Peterson, who says, "the only way it's going to get done is if the public option is jettisoned."
Both faced testy crowds last month. Despite his opposition to much of what he sees in his own party's health care proposals, Peterson still found himself getting booed in Bemidji. Also in Republican cross-hairs is southern Minnesota Democratic Rep. Tim Walz, now only in his second term.
But for all the taunts and shouts, Minnesota legislators say the August imbroglio served a purpose, even if few minds were changed. "People wanted their voices heard," Klobuchar said.
Franken, attending his first State Fair as a U.S. senator, said most of the people he met agreed with the need for some kind of change. "Americans are begging for health care reform," he said.
Recalling his encounter with the Tea Party protesters, he said "It started out a little contentious, but at the end, it was a really civil discussion."
Staff writer Bill McAuliffe contributed to this report. Kevin Diaz • 202-408-2753