Crowd pulls few punches at Herrera Beutler town hall

Congresswoman faces protesters, some boos amid mostly partisans

By Kathie Durbin, Columbian staff writer

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photoU.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, right, stands with Bob MacGregor, a pastor at City Harvest Church in Vancouver, as he offers an invocation at the congresswoman’s town hall meeting Monday at Skyview High School.

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U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler faced a boisterous, partisan crowd Tuesday evening at her first Vancouver town hall, where she fielded sometimes hostile questions about her vote to restructure Medicare and her reluctance to support raising the federal debt limit.

The Camas Republican had her supporters too, who applauded her vow to continue fighting to cut federal spending. She drew both boos and applause when she said, “If I’m offered the option to raise the debt limit with no strings attached, I would vote no.”

Several hundred people showed up at Skyview High School for the session. They passed a couple dozen protesters near the entrance who hoisted signs saying, “Save Medicare: Tax the Rich” and “People not Profits.” Several supporters of Planned Parenthood wore pink T-shirts to protest Herrera Beutler’s vote to end federal funding of family planning services.

Winning reproductive rights “is why I spent the 50s and 60s burning my bras,” declared Celia Louderback of Vancouver.

Herrera Beutler, sensing that it could be a rough crowd, urged the audience in her opening remarks to “make sure we respect everyone’s opinion.”

Skepticism on Medicare

Saying she wanted to “share with you what I walked into” when she entered Congress, she spent the first 40 minutes of the 75-minute session on a power-point presentation with graphs and pie charts that showed the projected increase in Medicare spending by 2020, the breakdown of discretionary and nondiscretionary federal spending, and the increase in the amount of U.S. debt owed to foreign governments.

“My first priority is to preserve and protect Medicare for the present generation and for future generations,” she said. But when she insisted that the Republican budget blueprint for 2012 “protects Medicare,” a chorus of boos and catcalls and shouts of “liar” erupted in the auditorium.

Unfazed, she repeated her argument that the budget blueprint written by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., which would convert Medicare to a voucher program and let seniors use the vouchers to buy insurance on the private market, actually ensures that Medicare will be there for future generations.

She compared the Ryan plan to the health care coverage members of Congress receive. ‘You get to choose your plan. It’s really that simple,” she said.

But the audience was openly skeptical.

Herrera Beutler also touted her energy record, noting that she has voted on three bills in the past three weeks to increase the nation’s energy independence. One of those would require the Interior Department to speed up the processing of new applications for oil drilling.

Budget crisis, bikers

The chance to question the congresswoman was decided by lottery.

When it came time for questions, a Vancouver man who identified himself as Scott won a standing ovation when he said, ”We didn’t have a deficit in 2000, but since then we’ve had two wars and tax cuts. If we end the wars and roll back the tax cuts,” that would solve the nation’s budget crisis, he said.

Herrera Beutler did not directly address why she has supported making the Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthy permanent. But she said she does favor taking a hard look at military spending and supports ending subsidies for big corporations like Exxon and BP.

“I’m not going to ask middle-class Americans to pay more than their fair share,” she added, and she pledged that she would never support rolling back the federal income tax deduction for home mortgage interest.

Asked by Steven Palmer of Hockinson whether she supports renewable energy, Herrera Beutler said she does, but added, “My concern is that Congress doesn’t get out in front and pick winners and losers,” as she believes the federal government did in boosting the ethanol industry.

A contingent of bikers showed up to ask whether she would support legislation pending in the U.S. Senate to prohibit Congress from funding motorcycle check points. The Washington Legislature recently passed a bill prohibiting police profiling of motorcyclists.

Herrera Beutler said she would. “I support your right to ride profile-free,” she said.

Public radio, health care

Eric McGrady thanked her for voting to end funding for National Public Radio, a comment that provoked a roar of opposition from the audience. Herrera Beutler allowed that, “I’ve enjoyed programming from NPR,” she said, but maintained that the government is broke and can’t afford such discretionary programs.

A man who identified himself as Dave asked her to stop confusing the need to raise the debt ceiling with her own political agenda of cutting federal spending. Those are two different things, he said.

“The debt ceiling is telling creditors, ‘Yes, we know we owe you money, and we will pay our bill,’” he said.

The congresswoman was asked why she uses the term “Obamacare” instead of “affordable health care for more people,” and why those who criticize the federal health reform bill don’t offer alternatives.

Herrera Beutler agreed that Republicans need to come up with their own solutions to the health care mess.

“We have to have an honest replace bill,” she said. That should include allowing workers to have medical savings, permitting association health plans, and allowing people to buy health insurance across state lines.

She’s advocated those programs for years, she said, “but the major media won’t pick this up.”