There was no shouting, no booing and hardly any interrupting. It was more than 50 minutes into U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler’s cordial telephone town hall Thursday evening when a woman named Jessica thanked the Republican from Camas for her service, but told her she was disappointed she wasn’t holding a face-to-face meeting.
Across the country, GOP members of Congress have faced loud and pointed criticism at town halls from liberal groups who have shown up in force to voice their anger about the president’s administration and policies.
In response, some members of Congress have strategically planned their town halls to control the environment. Others have skipped them. A few, such as Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., have embraced them. Walden held a town hall in Bend, Ore., on Thursday evening, where more than 2,000 people showed up for what was described by Oregon Public Broadcasting as a both hostile and energetic meeting.
“Democracy in action,” Walden reportedly said.
Herrera Beutler has repeatedly defended her stance to hold telephone town hall meetings. She told Jessica, the caller, she’s held more than 65 in-person town halls since she took office in 2011. Indeed, she held one in January in Hazel Dell; the questions were more poignant and predominantly about health care compared with Thursday’s telephone town hall. In person, she was also repeatedly interrupted and shouted at.
Herrera Beutler recently released a statement saying she will “continue to utilize every method there is that fosters productive, civil dialogue with residents from all political viewpoints.”
About 29,000 people picked up the call from Herrera Beutler’s office and 4,270 people participated in the entire 90-minute telephone town hall on Thursday evening, according to her office.
Even before Donald Trump became president, Herrera Beutler faced criticism for not holding robust town hall meetings. She tended to host community coffees, where certain people were invited to participate, rather than traditional town hall meetings advertised to the general public.
But now, with the current political climate, the calls for her to host in-person town hall meetings have heightened.
One caller on Herrera Beutler’s Thursday night telephone town hall, Brad Johnson, said he sat on the line with the hopes of asking a question but never had a chance. He called the event a “sham” and said she only took “softball calls from constituents.”
The tone of Herrera Beutler’s telephone town hall was drastically different from her face-to-face town hall. While most people asked about health care earlier this year, Herrera Beutler on Thursday touched on a wide range of topics from her efforts to protect endangered salmon to keeping the state’s forests healthy to her stance on recreational marijuana. (She was against legalization.)
A caller identified as David, a graduate student who attends an out-of-state university for the deaf and hard of hearing, told Herrera Beutler that Washington’s Medicaid plan won’t cover him while he’s in school. Herrera Beutler has been working on a measure to ensure medically complex children are eligible for Medicaid coverage across state lines and enthusiastically told the caller she’s working on the issue.
“I don’t think you should be limited by your ZIP code,” she said of care options.
Nearly an hour into the call was the first direct question about the Affordable Care Act. A man, identified as Bruce from Goldendale, wanted to know why the Democrats and Republicans can’t sit at a round table and make Obamacare or Trumpcare work.
Herrera Beutler was one of the moderate GOP members who opposed the plan proposed by Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan. Coupled with opposition from the most conservative House members, sponsors withdrew the bill.
Herrera Beutler said she’s now “working within my party” to ensure Republicans keep their promise to repeal the Affordable Care Act and replace it with something better. She wants to hold hearings where witnesses are asked to testify and is hoping that could inspire Democrats to join Republicans in the effort to improve the federal health care law.
Range of topics
While fielding questions, she said she’s confident the investigation into the administration’s ties with Russia will determine whether there was Russian intervention in the presidential campaign. She assured listeners she won’t support cutting funds for Meals on Wheels or for free- and reduced-price lunches. And she won’t back the replacement of the Interstate 5 Bridge if light rail is required.
Herrera Beutler also said she was briefed on the bombing in Syria and said the Trump administration’s action was warranted, but added she’s hoping to see a more long-term strategy coming from the Oval Office soon. She has also said future military acts in Syria should receive Congressional approval first.
The Republican from Camas said she’s in favor of the idea of securing the nation’s borders, but eager to see the funding structure for Trump’s border wall, pointing out the president said Mexico would pay for it. Herrera Beutler sits on the Appropriations Committee.
While on recess from Congress, Herrera Beutler will host a roundtable discussion with researchers and scientists to learn more about efforts to prevent drug resistant superbugs at Washington State University Vancouver. She toured the Clark County Jail to talk about overcapacity and the need for more mental health funding. She will visit a critical care hospital, stop by The Columbian’s editorial board and speak with law enforcement officers in Lewis County about federal support available for the small towns and rural communities, according to information from her staff. She also has several other meetings and appointments scheduled.
A group of people have rented Foster auditorium at Clark College and invited Herrera Beutler to attend a town hall they have set up for her on April 20. She hasn’t said yet whether she will attend.