Roughly 200 people turned out to hear U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, Democrat of Scranton, reiterate his opposition to the Republican health care agenda and criticize President Trump for his response to Russian election meddling.
Few people disagreed with U.S. Sen. Bob Casey on Saturday morning.
And he could tell.
The roughly 200 constituents who attended a town hall the Scranton Democrat held in Blasco Library’s Hirt Auditorium had been given “agree/disagree” signs to indicate where they stood on his responses to questions.
Throughout the hour-and-a-half event, it became clear that most of them supported his efforts against congressional Republicans working to repeal the Affordable Care Act, and it was clear that they wanted something to be done about Russian meddling in the 2016 election.
Casey was prepared for questions on both topics. He has been talking about them online, over the phone and in person since March, when he kicked off a series of constituent outreach events, spanning Philadelphia, Scranton, Pittsburgh, Johnstown, Altoona, Harrisburg and Lancaster.
People in attendance on Saturday — many were from the city of Erie, a Democratic stronghold — applauded the senator for his efforts, and contrasted Casey with the rest of Erie County’s delegation in Congress. None of those members, all Republicans, has held an in-person town hall in Erie this year to face opposition to their efforts to roll back former president Barack Obama’s signature health care law.
“You are very brave,” one person told Casey. “A lot of your colleagues are not doing this.”
Casey said the fight over health care is not over yet, even as support in the Senate for a Republican bill he said would “take a sledgehammer” to Medicaid has waned in recent weeks. A sense of resolution may arrive in the coming days, when the Senate is expected to vote on some form of health care legislation.
“It may all come to a conclusion this week,” Casey said.
Casey, who will seek a third six-year term in 2018, provided some insight into Republican failures to agree on a health care bill.
“If there is any upside to this debate, we learned that Medicaid is not a ‘them’ program; it’s an ‘us’ program,” he said. “That was not clear to people in Washington until the last couple of weeks, really. They started hearing from folks who said ‘Medicaid is us,’ people of great means with health care, but who can’t afford services or therapies for a child with a profound disability.”
Casey also rebutted characterizations that insurance markets created by the Obama law are failing beyond repair.
“The exchanges are not collapsing,” he said. “That’s a lie. But there are places where premiums are too high because there is not enough competition.”
If the repeal efforts fail, Casey said he will still continue working on health care. Several constituents at the town hall expressed support for a single-payer health care system, and one person asked Casey if he would work on a single-payer bill.
The senator said it is likely Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders will introduce a single-payer bill sometime in the future. Casey appeared open to some form of a single-payer public option, but said he was not going to outright endorse the idea. Any legislation that comes forth should be debated, he said.
On the topic of Russia, Casey expressed disappointment at the way President Donald Trump has responded to the foreign power’s meddling in the 2016 presidential election, but said investigations into election interference will succeed.
“We have a president who seems to either not believe it or wants to deny it,” Casey said. “I don’t know why the president … seems to believe that even if it happened, we shouldn’t do anything about it. Here’s how stark it is: I realize that Democrats and Republicans in the House and Senate don’t agree on much, but I’ll tell you, Republicans may not say it publicly a lot … but I am absolutely certain that they are very concerned about this.”
Casey said that members of Congress from both sides of the aisle believe that Russia will try to interfere in future elections.
“They are preparing right now to do the same thing in the 2018 (midterm) election … and into the foreseeable future unless we stop them,” he said.
People after the town hall reported satisfaction with Casey’s responses to their questions and concerns.
“I am glad that he talked about health care,” said 19-year-old Erie resident David Wieczovek.
“It was awesome,” said Patty Shubert, of Millcreek Township.
Though Casey encountered largely friendly faces on Saturday, his visit to Erie did not escape the notice of the Pennsylvania Republican Party.
“As one of the Senate’s most ineffective members, Bob Casey woke from his slumber to find that the Democrat party is now a far left party,” said state GOP communications director Greg Manz in a statement immediately following the town hall. “In a desperate attempt to play catch up and protect his left flank, Bob Casey has abandoned his father’s pro-life legacy, actively supports dangerous sanctuary cities, and advocates for job-killing regulations.”
Before the town hall started, Millcreek Township resident Alana Handman said she hoped Casey would motivate people to get involved in the political process.
“I think we have ceded our responsibility to politicians,” said the 72-year-old Handman.
But in closing remarks, Casey credited public outrage and protests with derailing the Republican health care agenda.
“You didn’t allow that to happen,” he said. “On some of these battles, we are going to win.”
Nico Salvatori can be reached at 870-1714 or by email. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/ETNsalvatori.