BETHLEHEM – Sen. Pat Toomey on Thursday said he was heading back to Capitol Hill next week after the August recess with two overriding “front-burner issues” taking priority: a Congressional relief response for the devastation of Hurricane Harvey and tax reform.
In a much anticipated town hall event held at the local Public Broadcasting Station – PBS39 – the Lehigh Valley Republican fielded a slew of pointed questions ranging from health care, the country’s divisive political rhetoric, immigration and Russian election meddling.
Toomey, who in 2013, was one of more than three dozen lawmakers who voted against a relief bill for victims of Hurricane Sandy, reiterated the stance he made earlier in the day to business leaders in Harrisburg that he would support legislation to ease suffering and rebuild in southeast Texas as long as it didn’t entail binge spending on the part of lawmakers.
“The criteria is the same,” Toomey said. “If we have a responsible piece of legislation that will help people who need help, that will deal with this crisis and deal with it in prudent ways, I will support it. If it becomes a Christmas tree where every member of Congress adds whatever his or her’s pork barrel program, then I will fight that. That’s what Sandy became.”
Toomey stuck to his talking points, not once diverging from his conservative agenda, even as the the event itself, drew scrutiny from audience members – and several dozen protesters outside – for its sanitized and controlled format, which they said discouraged rigorous conversation.
The town hall, broadcast live by the PBS affiliate in Bethlehem, was limited to 54 people, 24 of whom were hand-picked by local Republican and Democratic groups. The remaining 30 tickets were made available to the public.
“The format was flawed,” said Erin Bruch, a Bethlehem resident who procured a ticket to the ticketed event. “He quoted in there that he wanted a discussion. A discussion is we get to ask the questions, you give us your answer and we give you a different idea. This didn’t have that.”
Audience members were prohibited from clapping or speaking out. One ticketed participant asked a question regarding immigration but was ushered out of the studio by security. The sound quality in the studio was so poor, even the media pool at the back of the room had difficulty following the evening’s discussion.
Immediately after the town hall, Toomey addressed the criticism, saying:
“I am engaging in two-way conversation with constituents every single day many of whom strongly disagree with me. There are some people who are not interested in constructive discussion. I ‘m not interested in creating a forum for that.”
During the question-and-answer town hall event, Toomey sailed through a litany of questions that reflected most of the major concerns out of Washington.
That included questions regarding Toomey’s views on how the president handled the deadly white supremacists rally earlier this month in Charlottesville.
Toomey said he would give Trump credit when due but would not hold back criticism. He praised the president’s plans regarding Obamacare and tax reform, but criticized him for suggesting there were good people on both sides of the protest.
“The president missed a really important moment,” Toomey said during the town hall. “It’s important for the president to demonstrate moral clarity. .. He should have been much more clear. It’s completely unacceptable. It’s outrageous.”
Toomey reiterated his stance that the Affordable Care Act was a failure and that he would continue to work to repeal it.
In pushing for tax reform, Toomey said the tax code should be designed to generate as much money as the government needs while encouraging as much economic growth as possible.
“We shouldn’t tolerate a tax code that discourages business and growth,” said Toomey, a member of the Senate Finance Committee, which has oversight over taxes.
About two dozen protesters organized by Power Northeast, a coalition of social justice groups, staged outside of the TV station.
“This is a travesty,” said John Paul Marosy, a member of Power Northeast. “Town halls are supposed to give the public the ability to come here and have a dialogue. This is contrived and controlled. The public has no say. We regard this as a clamping down of free speech.”
Protesters blasted Toomey for a variety of topics, including his stances on immigration and universal health care.
Protesters at one point chanted in unison, “Fake town hall, fake town hall.”
In generally short answers, Toomey fielded more than a dozen questions, including one on his view of Russian election meddling.
“We’ve got to get to the bottom of exactly what happened,” he said.