Congressman Mike Conaway visited the Depot Civic & Cultural Center in Brownwood on Wednesday morning for a town hall meeting with local constituents.
Conaway, who has represented Texas’s 11th district in the U.S. House of Representatives since 2005, gave brief remarks and answered questions about Russia, healthcare, tax reform and the climate of Washington politics.
The representative has garnered new attention in recent days, taking over the House investigation of possible Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election after Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes stepped aside. Reporters from national media organizations like the New York Times and The Young Turks were on hand to cover the hourlong town hall event.
After a brief introduction and invocation, Conaway gave a rundown of current legislative priorities. Despite the failure of last month’s American Health Care Act, Conaway assured the town hall attendees that negotiations are still ongoing to repeal and replace Obamacare.
“We’ve got a bill that is a work in progress,” Conaway said. “We didn’t have enough votes for the version we had available last week … and we’ve been working on it since to try to get to a point where we can get 216 votes.”
Conaway described Obama’s Affordable Care Act as “collapsing” and “failing” and said the House will pass a bill that can use budget reconciliation, a legislative maneuver that requires only 51 Senate votes in limited circumstances, to change what it can.
“Buying insurance across state lines, association health plans, the repeal of the actual language for the mandate that’s set in current law — all of that will be a 60-vote issue that will require a different initiative to make that happen,” he said.
Conaway said a tax-reform bill will become much less difficult once health care reform is passed. He said tax reform is “a lot like heaven.”
“Everyone wants to get there,” he said, “just no one wants to die to get there.”
Next, Conaway addressed the budget that Congress is working on, emphasizing the need for border security and defense spending. He also talked about the the Farm Bill and welfare reform, discussing the underlying causes of poverty and homelessness. “Most of the folks who have a hunger issue or have a homelessness issue have something else that’s the core problem,” Conaway said. “It may be drugs. It may be a lack of education. There’s something else going on in those folks’ lives that has not allowed them to get where they’re standing on their own two feet. That’s outside the parameters of our bill, but it really ought to be part of the overall solution.”
Conaway then took questions from the attendees. Though Conaway’s district is solidly Republican, both parties were well-represented among the town hall participants as Conaway answered questions primarily about health care and the Russian investigation.
In January, Conaway raised eyebrows by comparing Russian hacking with a group of Mexican entertainers that campaigned in Las Vegas last November, calling them both “foreign actors.” The comments gained new scrutiny when Conaway took over the House investigation into Russian meddling.
Referring to those comments, Conaway said he did a “poor job” of “nuancing” his point. “But RT is a Russian propaganda machine that pushed propaganda on the election in the United States, and those Mexican entertainers went into Nevada to sway voters’ minds in Nevada,” he said. “That’s a foreign influence.”
The comment drew incredulous laughs and rebuttals from some attendees, while others verbally affirmed Conaway’s point in what proved to be the morning’s most contentious moment.
“First off, I’m flattered that my colleagues would trust me with the investigation,” Conaway said when asked about the appointment. “We’re going to follow every clue, every lead and every piece of paper we need to … to get to the answers all of us want.”
When a woman suggested that Congress try to fix Obamacare rather than undoing the law, Conaway insisted the system is beyond mere repair. “We’re going to eliminate the mandate to have insurance, and that’s the core of Obamacare,” he said. “When you begin to dismantle the things that we believe are wrong with it, then you have to put back in place things that work.”
Conaway concluded his visit by invoking his Christian faith and exhorting Americans to help repair the “moral fabric” of the country. “I want to challenge you to never hear [God Bless America] sung again that you don’t ask yourself, what’s the inventory of blessable things that are going on in this country?” he said. “What can God actually bless that we’re doing? We’ve killed 57 million babies in 43 years. God can’t bless that. The breaking up of the family and the impact that has on the moral compasses of children — God can’t bless that.
“Every day we have to stand up for what’s right in this country.”
Brown County Republican Party chair Rob Porter said he is glad to have a congressman who connects with his constituents, no matter their politics. “Everybody deserves an opportunity to speak their mind,” Porter said. “When they recess for the Easter break, I think many people think the congressmen just go on vacation. They do anything but that. That’s their opportunity to go to the district and meet with their constituencies in many different counties. I applaud Congressman Conaway for doing that.”
Local Democrat Jamey Thrasher attended the town hall and said Conaway was “very respectful.”
“He addressed all of our questions with respect and dignity,” she said. “Afterwards he came up and shook my hand, and I appreciated that. We did differ in quite a few views. We talked about the Russia investigation and Obamacare and several pretty tight issues there, but the main thing, he did seem like he really wanted to work together with the Democrats and I felt a little bit better after talking to him.”
Conaway will continue holding town halls across the 11th district through next week.