WILLINGBORO, NJ — The anger seemed to mount as attendees piled into the room here where Republican Rep. Tom MacArthur was about to hold a town hall.
Seats were filled within minutes — 200 to 250 people packed into a small room, anxious to air their grievances against the Republican plan to overhaul the Affordable Care Act, MacArthur himself, and President Donald Trump.
“Is rape considered a preexisting condition under your amendment?” asked 17-year-old Daisy Confoy, who attended the event with two friends. “Yes or no? Yes or no? One word, please.”
“Folks, you get to ask the questions, and I get to give the answers,” MacArthur said, as the audience booed him.
MacArthur, the leader of the moderate Tuesday Group in the House of Representatives, was the recipient of a frosty welcome back in his home state on Wednesday evening.
In recent weeks, he has gained prominence by wading into the healthcare debate in a big way: He’s the author of an amendment to the American Health Care Act that was key to its passage in the House.
MacArthur returned here, to the New Jersey 3rd Congressional District he has represented since 2015, to host a town hall. The event itself started at 6:30, but protesters and demonstrators clustered outside the venue at least two hours beforehand, with many calling for constituents to vote MacArthur out of his congressional seat based on his leadership on what’s become known as the MacArthur amendment.
The American Health Care Act, which recently passed the House and is currently being debated in the Senate, has a 38% approval rating, according to a Morning Consult/Politico poll released Wednesday. The Congressional Budget Office has projected its implementation would result in millions of Americans losing their health insurance, as well as potentially skyrocketing costs for older and sicker Americans.
Prior to the town hall, demonstrators gathered outside and shouted slogans.
“Pro-life, that’s a lie, you don’t care if people die,” they chanted. “Hey hey, ho ho, Tom MacArthur’s got to go!”
‘You answer to us … We will vote you out’
As Confoy, who is a senior in high school, continued to press him, MacArthur said he would not “reduce” the experience of sexual violence by calling it a preexisting condition, but he never answered her question outright.
Though the question of whether sexual assault and rape could be considered preexisting conditions has led to an uproar since the AHCA’s passage in the House, that notion has been debunked by fact-checkers.
Nevertheless, Confoy and her friends were furious over MacArthur’s amendment, which allows states to apply for waivers to the preexisting conditions mandate. They said they would vote in the 2018 midterms.
“You answer to us. You are our representative. We will vote you out,” Confoy said, as other attendees stood up and cheered.
Ashwin Suseendran, who attended the town hall with Confoy and their friend Joseph Zetkulic, told Business Insider that they’d decided to come to the event as soon as they found out about his amendment to the AHCA. Suseendran said none of them had participated in the protests before the town hall.
“We wanted to wait in line and make sure we got in so MacArthur would hear directly from us,” he said. “We’re all voting next year.”
The Trump-Russia cloud hangs over
MacArthur was also grilled on Congress’ handling of investigations into the Trump campaign’s possible collusion with Russia during the 2016 election.
“We seem to have a pattern that most people who are investigating Russia seem to be getting fired,” said Willingboro resident Kimberly Stuart, referring to Trump’s dismissal of high-profile figures like FBI Director James Comey, whom he unexpectedly fired Tuesday. “Do you support an independent group investigating Russia’s ties into the 2016 election?”
“So, Director Comey got fired less than a day ago … and my view right now is the FBI has still got some work to do in their investigation, and both the Senate and the House Intelligence Committee are still investigating,” MacArthur said. “This isn’t the first FBI director that was fired; Bill Clinton fired his, too,” MacArthur said as attendees shouted him down.
Multiple constituents asked, “Yes or no?”
MacArthur replied: “The answer is no, not yet,” and the audience again booed.
One constituent pointed to the apparent disarray on the House Intelligence Committee’s investigation into Russian meddling in the election, such as Rep. Devin Nunes, the committee’s chairman, deciding to step aside from leading the probe.
“This week, we listened to a subcommittee hearing in which most of the Republicans could not bring themselves to ask even one question about Russia, and now we have Comey fired,” the constituent said. “If that isn’t enough to convince you that the legislature cannot do this on its own, what specifically do you need to see before you’re convinced?”
“You’re right, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee did recuse himself, but that investigation is now continuing in a bipartisan manner,” MacArthur said.
The audience groaned.
He continued, addressing the constituent: “The Senate chair and the ranking member have both publicly declared that they’re working closely together on their investigation — publicly. So, you asked what I want to see. I want to see the result of their investigation.”
“That will take four years,” some in the audience shouted out.
“I don’t think it will take four years. I don’t think so,” MacArthur said.
“How is [the investigation] ever going to get finished if you keep firing the people that are doing the investigation?” Stuart asked, before she was drowned out by raucous applause.
“Well, you asked and I answered,” MacArthur said.
‘The greatest threat to democracy in our lifetime’
Constituents were also furious at MacArthur and his congressional colleagues for what they characterised as Congress’ refusal to stand up to Trump.
Lavonne Bebler Johnson, who was the mayor of Willingboro and sat on the town council for seven years, implored MacArthur to hold Trump accountable for his actions.
Trump “seems to be learning day by day that he can do whatever he pleases, and no one will hold him to account,” she said. “He did whatever he wanted during the election and got elected. He does whatever he wants in office, and nobody holds him to account, and he keeps doing it. It’s a sign of tyranny.”
Paul Ziegler, a constituent from Edgewater Park, New Jersey, shared her fear.
“I am concerned that I have a president that praises Vladimir Putin and other dictators around the world,” he said. “I am concerned that I have a president that attacks the free press and calls them the enemy of the people. I am concerned because I have a president who attacks the independence of the judiciary when they have a ruling that doesn’t go his way.”
“Donald Trump is the greatest threat to democracy in our lifetime,” Ziegler continued, becoming increasingly agitated as the audience gave him a standing ovation. “My question to you: How long are you and your fellow Republicans going to defend this American nightmare? You? Mitch McConnell? How long? Open your eyes.”
“Let me — let me respond,” MacArthur said. “Folks, I didn’t come here to defend our president tonight, I came to answer your questions … and to tell you what I think and what I’m doing. That’s what I came here for.”
“I hear your anger, and I hear all of the angst in this room,” MacArthur added. “But — but when I drive across the pine barrens, there’ll be people that totally disagree with you,” he said, referring to Ocean County, New Jersey, which he also represents and which strongly supported Trump in the 2016 election. As MacArthur continued speaking, he was drowned out by jeers and shouts of disapproval from the audience.
“What is it going to take, congressman? What is it going to take for you and your fellow Republicans to open your eyes and realise what’s going on?” Ziegler asked. “We need an independent prosecutor. We need a bipartisan select committee to investigate this. When are you going to open your eyes? We all see it … You don’t see it? When are you going to decide to be an American and not a politician?”
When are you going to decide to be an American and not a politician?
“I hear you, but there are loads of other people who don’t see it that way. That’s the reality,” MacArthur said. “I swore an oath to the Constitution. When and if I see — “
“And we’re in a constitutional crisis now!” Ziegler interjected.
“No, I don’t think we are. I don’t think we are,” MacArthur said. “When I see what I believe is a violation of that, I will act. But right now, right now, we have three independent groups investigating this, and I think we owe them a chance to give us an answer before we jump to — “
Some people in the audience said the investigation would go on for over a year.
“Well, I don’t think it will take that long. Honestly, I don’t,” MacArthur said, before moving on.
The ‘Trump effect’
But more than anything, MacArthur faced hostility from attendees about the GOP’s healthcare bill.
“It’s ridiculous because half these people in Congress haven’t even read their own bill,” a man, who identified himself as Cliff, told Business Insider as he waited in line before the town hall began. “They don’t even know what’s in it. How do you vote for something that affects people’s lives — these are our lives — when you haven’t even read the whole thing?”
One man said he has a heart condition and told MacArthur he was worried about what would happen if he lost his job, had a gap in coverage, and couldn’t afford insurance in the individual market. “This is very real. This is my life,” he said. “Without healthcare coverage, I’m dead. I’m dead. I can’t afford it.”
“This is your health care bill,” the man continued, addressing MacArthur. “It was dead in the water and could have stayed dead in the water. It was done. … Because of that MacArthur amendment, you brought it back from the dead, with that amendment. It’s yours. You own it.”
Another man said his wife was a breast cancer survivor. “She will always have a preexisting condition. I don’t want to choose what state I live in, in order to get healthcare for her,” the man said, as the audience signalled its approval.
The forceful response from attendees surprised Johnson, the former Willingboro mayor.
“This was the most well-informed crowd on the issues I’ve ever seen,” Johnson told Business Insider. “And I think it’s because Trump has forced people to pay attention. People have woken up and taken a crash course in what’s going on in this country.”
She added that she’d never felt or witnessed the level of fear she does now.
When asked about her reaction to MacArthur’s appearance, she told Business Insider, “Everything he says sounds hollow and empty.”
“He’s giving us a good line on some of this stuff, and the high-risk pool he’s talking about sounds a little different than a standard insurance company high-risk pool,” Johnson added. “But when the American Medical Association, the National Nurses Association, the AARP — when they call this a horrible law, and when you see that it’s going to take $US880 billion out of the system and redistribute it to the rich, how can you take anything MacArthur says seriously?”
And people are recognising that, Johnson said.
“The folks in here tonight knew what they were talking about,” she said. “That’s the Trump effect.”
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