By ERIKA BOLSTAD – Herald Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama asked Americans to reach out to Congress to make their voices heard on the debt ceiling debate — and so they did.
Thousands of callers with opinions on how to solve the debt crisis flooded the Capitol switchboard Tuesday, and email traffic swamped congressional servers on both sides of the aisle. Rep. Frederica Wilson, D-Miami, saw her website slow to a crawl; the office of Rep. David Rivera, R-Miami, handled 2 1/2 times its normal call volume.
“Our phones have been ringing off the hook all day — nice to see democracy at work,” Florida Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, said on Twitter.
Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson’s office got more than 5,500 emails Tuesday morning. And underscoring the role of seniors in the debate as well as their concerns about Medicare and Social Security, the American Association of Retired Persons dropped off 87,000 petitions at Republican Sen. Marco Rubio’s Orlando office.
“Many are weighing in for a balanced approach, compromise and action,” said Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, who represents part of Manatee County. “The large majority are advocating for Medicare.”
The Capitol, which typically handles 20,000 calls per hour, saw spikes of up to 40,000 calls Tuesday, rivaling the 50,000-an-hour rate of the 2010 health care debate.
“Congress and Capitol Hill have been flooded, with emails and phones, switchboards are jammed, servers going down. So it’s clear the American people are frustrated by the lack of compromise in Washington,” said David Plouffe, the president’s senior adviser, who was clearly getting exactly the response the White House had sought when the president called Washington a town “where compromise has become a dirty word.”
Their details of their opinions varied widely, but callers and emailers across Florida seemed to agree with the president, who warned Congress on Monday night that even if Americans voted for divided government last fall, they didn’t vote for a dysfunctional government. Those heeding the president’s advice to make their voices heard on the debt debate had one common refrain: Get it done.
“Most folks just want Congress to act. I agree,” said Nelson, who intends to support the debt plan being put forward by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Democrat. Both Reid’s plan and Republican House Speaker John Boehner’s separate proposal could come up for votes as early as today.
Rubio, who opposes the Reid plan, joined 30 other conservative Republican senators in filing a bill that would require the U.S. Treasury to prioritize payments if Congress fails to raise the debt limit before Aug. 2. First in line: publicly held debt, Social Security and active-duty military pay.
“The President’s recent claims that there are now no guarantees for Social Security recipients or for armed service members beyond Aug. 2 are both irresponsible and completely avoidable,” Rubio said. “As the debt ceiling debate continues, Congress and the President should immediately approve this plan to reassure seniors and active service members that our government will not break our promises to them.”
Republicans had a tougher time selling their debt reduction proposal to their most conservative members, after the anti-tax group Club for Growth came out in opposition to the Boehner plan. Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Bradenton, was still weighing whether to support it, his office said.
Still, one of the most conservative House members elected in the 2010 GOP wave, Republican Rep. Allen West of Plantation, signed on to the Boehner plan. So did Rivera, as well as Miami’s Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, whose office said constituent input was mixed, but noted that if callers were interested, staffers would read them a one-page memo on the congresswoman’s position.
“President Obama lectures the GOP members on how irresponsible it would be to vote ‘no’ on a debt limit increase, yet when he was a U.S. senator, he voted ‘no’ on a debt limit increase,” Ros-Lehtinen said.
Yet she, too, put the politics aside to thank a new intern who was helping with the phones Tuesday. “Keep calls comin’!” Ros-Lehtinen tweeted.
Lesley Clark and Daniel Lippman of the McClatchy Washington Bureau contributed to this report.