Hundreds confront Harris at health care town hall

Rep. Andy Harris, Maryland's only Republican in Congress, confronted hundreds of voters at a town hall meeting on the Eastern Shore late Friday that rapidly devolved into a shouting match over the Trump administration, immigration and GOP efforts to repeal the Obamacare health law.

In a reliably Republican congressional district, Harris faced jeers as he tried to explain his opposition to the 2010 health care law, and was met with chants of "No wall!" as he defended President Donald Trump's plan to crack down on illegal immigration and cut funding for education, housing and other domestic programs.

Scheduled weeks ago, the town hall meeting was among the first in the nation since the Republican-led House of Representatives abruptly abandoned legislation to overhaul Obamacare. The retreat was a blow to Trump, who had hoped the GOP would quickly coalesce around a six-year-old promise to repeal law.

Holding signs that read "Dr. Harris, do no harm" and "Impeach Trump," the audience of about 900 pressed the congressman and Johns Hopkins-trained anesthesiologist on why he wanted to upend Obamacare in the first place. One questioner asked if Harris would be able to "sleep at night" if people died because they lost their insurance coverage.

"I believe that we can do a better job in Maryland than the federal government is doing," Harris said during a rare moment of calm from the audience. "Would the fix of [Obamacare] be better if it was bipartisan? Yeah, it would. We have not had people, except a handful, reach across the aisle to agree with the president — a president who got elected on a platform of replacing the Affordable Care Act."

The meeting, held at Chesapeake College, harked back to those in 2009 when Democrats in Congress were advancing Obamacare despite objections from the then-fledgling tea party movement. Harris repeatedly had to stop speaking and stand on the stage in silence as the crowd roared.

Some questioned whether the crowd was a true reflection of the sentiments of the largely Republican area of the state.

"They're loud, but they don't represent the average person," said Tom Jackson, a 60-year-old Queen Anne's County man who said he believes Obamacare is too expensive and ineffective. "Both sides got to give some. People need to come back to what's good for the country, not what's good for the party."

Trump's election, and the expected changes to health care, have energized Democrats in the state — even in Harris' district. Groups with names like Talbot Rising and Together We Will publicly pressed Harris for weeks to hold a town hall, and they appeared to organize enough people to vastly outnumber Harris supporters.

A line of dozens of participants formed in the driving rain outside the auditorium two hours before the 6 p.m. meeting began.

"I don't quite understand his feeling that health care for all isn't something that should be expected," said Deborah Krueger, a 53-year-old Queen Anne's County woman who is involved with the group Together We Will.

Krueger said many of Harris' constituents are upset he hadn't held the meeting sooner — Harris has taken questions on telephone town halls recently, and in one-on-one meetings — and they chafed at the format of the event. The congressman began the meeting with a presentation on national budget deficits and health care. The crowd wanted him to turn to questions, and began shouting three minutes into his speech.

"We know what his stands are," Krueger said. "We don't need to be lectured like high school students with a PowerPoint" presentation.

Harris, a fourth-term lawmaker who won his first election to Congress the year Obamacare was approved, also finds himself in the middle of a quarrel between the White House and the conservative Freedom Caucus, to which he belongs. Even though centrist Republicans also opposed the GOP health plan last week, Trump has directed most of his criticism at members on the right.

"The Freedom Caucus will hurt the entire Republican agenda if they don't get on the team," the president tweeted Thursday in a rare public display of a White House criticizing members of its own party. "We must fight them, and [Democrats], in 2018!"

Harris was opposed to the overhaul legislation, known as the American Health Care Act, throughout much of the negotiations, though his position frequently shifted. When the legislation was introduced, he appeared to be supportive, saying it would drive down costs. Late last week, as the House moved closer to the vote its leaders ultimately yanked, he told several media outlets that he was undecided on the legislation.

The congressman said the draft of the bill pending late last week didn't do enough to address rising premiums. Conservatives wanted the White House and Republican leadership to strike more Obamacare requirements — including some provisions that are widely popular, according to polling — in an effort to drive cost estimates down further.

The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimated that average premiums would initially increase under the legislation, and then fall below Obamacare rates by 2020. The CBO estimated that as many as 24 million more people would lose insurance, despite assurances from Trump that his plan would provide "insurance for everybody."

The White House has dismissed the CBO projections — pointing to past estimates that proved incorrect — but did not offer its own detailed analysis of the legislation's impact.

Harris' district, which has been safe for Republicans since the state's redistricting in 2011, includes the Eastern Shore and portions of Harford, Baltimore and Carroll counties. The congressman won re-election last year with 67 percent of the vote.

Michael Pullen, an attorney and member of Talbot Rising, said the crowd's reaction was predictable because "people are upset." He said he believes far more people are focusing on federal issues since the election and that, if harnessed, that energy could ultimately pose a challenge to Harris.

"There is a movement afoot," Pullen said. "This is a democracy, and people are the source of the power."

john.fritze@baltsun.com

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