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Rep. Gerald Connolly On Health Reform, Extending Metro and Stimulus Spending

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Greenspring Village Retirement Community residents express their thoughts and concerns over President Obama's health-care reform bill with Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.). A group of residents protested outside. Video by Whitney Shefte and Jon Johnston; Edited by Pierre Kattar/The Washington Post

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Congressman Gerald Connolly
Rep. of Virginia's 11th District
Thursday, September 24, 2009; 1:00 PM

Virginia Congressman Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) will be online Thursday, Sept. 24 at 1 p.m. ET to discuss health-care reform, extending Metro's reach to Woodbridge and how he feels stimulus money has been handled in the Washington area.

A transcript follows.

Congressman Gerald E. "Gerry" Connolly represents Virginia's 11th District, which encompasses Fairfax County, Prince William County, and Fairfax City in Northern Virginia. He serves on the House Budget Committee, the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, and the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform and is a member of two Foreign Affairs Subcommittees.

Prior to his election to Congress in November 2008, Congressman Connolly served a total of 14 years on the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, the last five as Chairman.

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Rep. Gerry Connolly: I'm thrilled to be here today for this live chat. I really look forward to answering your questions. I'm between votes and committee hearings this afternoon, but will get to as many questions as possible.

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Vienna, Va.: Why don't you vote to stop any further stimulus bill spending? Before any of it was actually spent, the economy started to come back. If you leave it alone, we will come out of it fine (much quicker than if you take us farther into debt) and we won't be crippling our children and grandchildren with this stimulus debt. We don't need it, so don't borrow it. Please show us some good old fashioned American common sense.

Rep. Gerry Connolly: I was proud to support the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, commonly known as the stimulus. At the time, I consulted with dozens of economists -- Republicans and Democrats -- and each one said that we absolutely needed to stimulate the economy. Had we done nothing, we were at serious risk of sliding into a Depression that would last for years.

Today, the evidence is overwhelming that the stimulus is working, not according to me but according to Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke. The economy is stabilizing. In Virginia, the unemployment rate recently dropped to 6.5%. But nationally, we're still experiencing very sluggish job growth. To change course now would be a serious mistake that could cause us to slip back into recession.

Stopping stimulus spending would have a devastating effect here in Northern Virginia. For example, stimulus funding is working as we speak (or chat) to complete the Fairfax County Parkway, with a $60 million federal investment. With 20,000 jobs coming to Belvoir for BRAC, this is a vital project for our region and for our nation's national security.

On the issue of debt, I was proud to cosponsor the PAYGO legislation that passed the House earlier this year. This will ensure that future spending or tax cuts are revenue neutral, not adding to the deficit.

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Vienna, Va.: Dear Congressman Connolly, As the First Lady just said, and the President has also said, health care reform must begin immediately. But you are voting on a bill that will not take effect until 2013. Why not pass legislation to open up the possibility to sell health insurance across state lines tomorrow? It would lower costs immediately, and as Michelle Obama said, we need to do something NOW.

Rep. Gerry Connolly: We spend 18% of our GDP on health care. That will grow to 34% by 2035 and 48% by 2050. Meanwhile insurance premium costs, having gone up 130% in the past decade will climb from an aeverage of $13,000 for a family of four to $30,000 by 2018 -- just nine years from now. That is not sustainable. Doing nothing is not an option.

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Arlington, Va.: Did you see the poll where it shows a majority do not want a public option, while a majority also then replied that they preferred being able to opt into a public health insurance plan? Isn't a big problem with health care is that the issue is too complex and the public does not understand it? Wouldn't it have been better if we tried for a simpler approach, such as expanding Medicare to everyone or allowing people to enter health insurance plans on the federal income tax forms?

Rep. Gerry Connolly: Yes, health care is a complex issue and perhaps a simpler approach would have been easier to understand. But we've been debating this subject since Truman and a consensus has been elusive. It is complex and difficult but that isn't a reason to avoid the challenge.

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Washington, DC: What are your views on DC voting rights? Will you help move the bill through this session?

Rep. Gerry Connolly: I support D.C. voting rights. It is unconscionable that 600,000 Americans living in the District of Columbia do not having voting representation in Congress.

I am a cosponsor of legislation to give D.C. a vote in Congress and will do everything in my power to make it happen as soon as possible.

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Tampa, Fla.: My 2 questions concerns redistricting.

First, do you expect redistricting after next year's census to affect the balance of power in the House? Specifically, do you expect that many districts formerly drawn by the GOP to be right-leaning will be drawn by the Dems to be left-leaning? If so, could this push the House a bit to the left? As I understand it, the Dems will be running the redistricting in more than a few states that were formerly run by the GOP.

Second, what effect on the House might you see if next year's ballot initiative in Florida to move to non-partisan redistricting passes? As I understand it, non-partisan redistricting moves politics to the center. Conservatives become less conservative, and liberal less liberal. given that Florida has the 4th-largest delegation (and may have the 3rd), how much might this affect the House?

Rep. Gerry Connolly: Redistricting most certainly will affect the numbers in the House but will not shift the balance of power. I favor taking the power to redistrict out of the hands of the politicians. Formation of non-partisan panels has worked well in Iowa, for example, and created competitive distritcs which we need many more of.

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Springfield, Va.: Thanks very much for your service to our community, I think you're doing a great job. Would like to hear your thoughts on the possibility of campaign finance reform, and how the need to raise so much money to run for office impacts you?

Rep. Gerry Connolly: Thank you so much for your question. I am a cosponsor of the Fair Elections Now Act. This legislation would provide public funds for qualified congressional candidates once they demonstrate broad public support by raising a large number of small donations. Changing the way elections are financed can help ensure that the voices of all Americans are heard as Congress debates huge issues like health care, climate change, etc. Frankly, free television time (with rules and limits) would allow federal candidates to debate issues, promote their candidacy and avoid the need to raise million of dollars. Television advertising costs are the driver of money influence in our polity.

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Washington, D.C.: Dear Rep. Connolly -

How would out-of-network coverage be handled under the various health care reform proposals? I take my daughter to a doctor who doesn't take health insurance, so we pay him out of pocket. However, we submit the bill to my wife's insurance company and they generally cover eighty percent of the cost. Would we still be able to do this under the proposed health care reform proposals?

Thanks.

Rep. Gerry Connolly: One of my principles for health care reform is that it increase the choices you have. By setting up a health insurance exchange, we can give your family more insurance choices, hopefully including one that your daughter's doctor chooses to accept. All of the proposals before Congress today would require all plans to offer "adequate" networks of doctors and hospitals. Remember that the exchange being formed would be comprised of a dozen or more private insurance providers. As to your question, yes, you would still be able to use your current out-of-network doctor.

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Fairfax (Merrifield), Va.: Thanks for taking our questions! I had an idea for the opponents of health care reform who think that the new system would still be supporting illegal immigrants. What about encouraging illegal immigrants to buy into health care (either privately or buying the public option - would that be an option for them? - if there is one) by pushing them ahead in terms of obtaining legal status if they show proof that they have health care insurance? That way we are encouraging more people to get the coverage that doesn't end up costing the rest of us more and giving a big incentive to do it, without actually giving them the benefit of universal health care reform. This seems like a win-win situation for everyone and something that illegal immigrant opponents could also support.

Rep. Gerry Connolly: Right now we need to focus on getting health care to legal residents. The current legislation explicitly prohibits benefits for those here illegally. This provision can be found on page 143, section 246 of HR 3200, which is available on my website http://connolly.house.gov.

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Fairfax, Va.: I am so ashamed to live in the same state as Rep. Eric Cantor. It was really shameful the way he just sat there tweeting while President Obama was discussing the most important legislation of my entire life. Question: What is going to take to get him out of the House of Representatives? He is an absolute waste of space.

Rep. Gerry Connolly: There are 6 Democrats and 5 Republicans in the Virginia Congressional delegation. For the most part, we are able to work together in a bi-partisan fashion on the Commonwealth's shared priorities. For example, I'm working with Rep. Rob Wittman on legislation to protect the Chesapeake Bay and have worked with Rep. Frank Wolf on a number of important regional transportation initiatives. Rep. Cantor, as Republican Whip, has other priorities. He is leading his Caucus in a political effort to damage President Obama and has made a strategic decision to oppose major initiatives, rather than find common ground. That's unfortunate.

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Fairfax, Va.: Congressman Connolly:

How did you vote on the admonishment of a fellow House Member for yelling "You lie!" at the President during his address on the House floor? Is there any distinction between the Member's actions and, say, the common refrain of "boos" from Members on your side of the aisle during some of President Bush's addresses?

Rep. Gerry Connolly: I think any of us who excuse boorish and uncivil behavior are complicit in the degradation of our civil discourse. I proudly voted for the resolution of disapproval and would have done the same had the offending party been a Democrat. The President is the head of state and a guest of the Congress. The rules are quite clear with respect to protocol and decorum, and just as clearly those rules were violated.

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Reston, Va.: Will Stimulus funds be used to fund metro extension to Dulles Airport?

On health care, there is no way the Federal government should be involved, as it is clearly not among the enumerated powers expressed in the Constitution. Leave that to the states and quit making it worse.

Rep. Gerry Connolly: We were able to secure advance funding of $77 million from the stimulus package, which will save the project at least $15 million in financing costs. We hope to do more.

On health care, your understanding of the Constitution and mine differ considerably. Following your logic, Medicare, Medicaid, the federal student loan program, and myriad other long-standing federal programs would be nullified.

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Arlington, Va.: Would you consider running for Governor in 2013? Honest answer, please.

Rep. Gerry Connolly: After we elect Creigh Deeds in this year's election, we'll all have plenty of time to speculate about 2013.

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Burke, Va.: Hello. I voted for you in the hope that you will do all you can to support Renewable Energy, National Security, and Job growth in VA through Climate Change and Renewable Energy Portfolio standards. So far you've been spot on.

For health care, why not allow insurance companies to offer insurance across state lines immediately, if that can result in lower costs for everybody?

Rep. Gerry Connolly: Thank you. I was proud to support the Energy bill several months ago. With respect to your second question, I have already written leadership requesting such a change.

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Merrifield, Va.: Although my income would apparently deem me rich by most of the Democratic party, here in Fairfax I'm decidedly middle class. Could you tell me what steps you're taking to ensure that your middle-class constituents like me will not be unfairly burdened with the costs of the many initiatives being pushed by the Pelosi-Hoyer wing of the party?

Rep. Gerry Connolly: The 11th District is the wealthiest Congressional district in the nation, as measured by median household income. That said, we are not a community filled with Beverly Hills millionaires. Here in Northern Virginia, we have a high cost of living and a large percentage of two income households.

Recently, I led a group of my colleagues to the White House to express our concern with the proposed surtax on higher income households. I was concerned that proposal would hurt my constituents and small businesses. We were successful in convincing House leadership to reevaluate that proposal.

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Woodbridge, Va.: I'm a supporter of extending METRO to Woodbridge, and possibly even North Stafford. With stops at the commuter lots, Potomac Mills, etc. it would be a win/win for the county and its citizens. How do we get our hesitant elected officials in PW to get behind this effort? I can already sense Stewart and Co. would rather continue the status quo and continue to suffer under this traffic headache....

Rep. Gerry Connolly: I've introduced a bill to fund a preliminary design study of Metro extension. I'm working with Senator Chuck Colgan, Delegate Paul Nichols, and Supervisors Frank Principi and John Jenkins in Prince William to explore the feasibility of such an extension. Without prejudging the outcome of a study, I believe we would be foolish to preclude this option given the enormous congestion and gridlock we suffer in Northern Virginia and Prince William in particular.

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Fairfax, Va.: I just found your earmarks for Transportation and Infrastructure Project for FY10. Let me just say, I did not vote for you, but I whole-heartedly approve of your requests.

I take the Fairfax county connector bus to and from the Fair Oaks area, and these buses, which use the I-66 HOV, are consistently LATE, by over 20 minutes sometimes, simply trying to get in the 2 mile stretch between Nutley and 123. Creating a bus ramp from Vaden drive is an outstanding idea. Kudos. (Fairfax county then needs to make the HOV bus-only...)

I think the long-term solution is metro down to Haymarket, though. I know you have requested funds to do studies of the Orange, Blue, and Yellow lines, in addition to a "purple" line (which needs to run by GMU, by the way). How confident are you that these great (and necessary) dreams will come to fruition?

Rep. Gerry Connolly: Thank you. I hope I can earn your support in the future.

Large transit projects like the extension of Metro are never easy. But, as long as I'm in public office, I will fight for transportation investment in Northern Virginia.

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Merrifield, Va.: On what basis should I make a decision on who to vote for Governor?

Rep. Gerry Connolly: Great question. I can see you're from Merrifield. I've been working for more than a decade to get funding to improve the intersection of rte 29 and Gallows Rd. We've made some progress, purchased the right of way, and begun utility relocation. But because Republicans in Richmond have steadfastly refused to support proposals to invest in Northern Virginia roads and transit, we're in danger of being unable to complete this project.

I think Northern Virginians should make their decision this November based on who has a record of supporting our transportation needs and a willingness to support net new revenue to invest in projects like the 29/Gallows interchange. As Northern Virginians -- Republican or Democrat -- we need a Governor who understands our congestion and is willing to address it. I'm supporting Creigh Deeds for that reason. This morning's Washington Post made a cogent case for Deeds' position and criticized his opponent for a "smoke and mirrors" approach to transportation.

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Alexandria, Va.: Is John Catoe still accepting the 2009 Public Transportation Manager of the Year award at the American Public Transportation Association convention next month in Orlando? That would seem tone-deaf, as he can't claim that he is the "best" Manager in the nation after what happened this summer.

Rep. Gerry Connolly: The National Transportation Safety Board is actively investigating this summer's tragic crash.

Recently, I criticized Metro's poor communication with the public when they decided to close three major stations over the Labor Day weekend. I was pleased to learn that Mr. Catoe and Metro committed to improving their communication process for all future station closures.

The fundamental problem with Metro is its lack of a dedicated revenue source. That's why I've been working with my colleagues in the regional delegation -- Democrats and Republicans -- to secure an annual appropriation of $150 million to fund vital capital and maintenance needs.

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Springfield, Va.: I am retired military and use Tricare Prime for my health care and that of my wife. How or will this change with the health care plan under review?

Rep. Gerry Connolly: Thank you for your question and for your service to our country. Tricare benefits will not be affected by health care reform.

On a related note, I'm proud to cosponsor legislation that would prevent Tricare premium increases.

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Falls Church, Va.: Given that Medicare for All would provide better health care at lower cost than massive Government subsidies for the mandatory purchase of private health insurance, will you vote for Rep. Anthony Weiner's floor amendment to substitute HR 676 for the first part of HR 3200?

Rep. Gerry Connolly: Health care reform will build on the system of private insurers and private medical providers. There are some Democrats who would prefer a universal, single-payer system similar to Medicare. However, that kind of proposal does not have the requisite support to pass in the House or Senate. I'm focusing my efforts on the reform proposals that are on the table because I believe we can expand coverage and lower costs, while ensuring that Americans who like the private coverage they have now can keep it.

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Vienna, Va.: Dear Congressman Connolly, President Obama has used the phrase "choice and competition" to describe his health plan. Why do you favor his plan, which means "choice and competition" provided by the government health care plan, rather than the Republican's plan, which would mean "choice and competition" from private health care companies, like Blue Cross Blue Shield, a non-profit company, if insurance companies were allowed to sell policies across state lines. That would mean "choice and competition" without the government taking over health insurance sector. It really seems that this is what the American people prefer, as they are trying to tell you and other Congressmen.

Rep. Gerry Connolly: The problem with the health care system as it stands now is that we don't really have choice and competition. In fact, in many states just one or two insurance companies completely dominate the market. That lack of competition allows them to increase premiums and deny coverage.

The creation of the health exchange will allow consumers to choose from a broad array of private plans, increasing choice and competition. I support the public option because I want my constituents to have as many choices as possible. By the way, the Republican caucus has issued a compilation of platitudes on health care but no plan whatsoever.

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Vienna, Va.: Congressman Connolly, why would we move to any further government involvement in health care insurance until Medicare and Medicaid were fixed? Until you can make them solvent, why would you move the rest of our citizens to similar programs?

Rep. Gerry Connolly: I'm not supporting any proposals to "move the rest of our citizens" to Medicare and/or Medicaid and I don't believe any are being seriously considered right in Congress right now. The proposals we are considering would build on the current private system of insurance and include a public option as one choice among many.

You're correct to point out that Medicare and Medicaid are facing serious financial challenges in the out years. This is one of the main reasons we need health care reform. If we do nothing, Medicare costs will continue to grow as overall health care costs grow at an unsustainable rate. Bending that cost curve is a necessity for me. I won't support a plan that doesn't do absolutely everything possible to find savings in the health care system.

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Centreville, Va.: Is there any provision in the current proposed health-care reform bill that extends medical benefits for dependents of federal employees to the age of 25-26? I do know that a bill has been re-introduced for a few years by Rep. Danny Davis that would extend health benefits for dependents of federal employees. What is the status of this proposed bill? Many young people who are still in college desperately need this extension of medical coverage until they graduate from college and get employed. Parents cannot afford $500 a month to extend coverage through a Temporary Continuation of Coverage policy for their dependents!

Rep. Gerry Connolly: First, I am proud to be a cosponsor of Rep. Davis' legislation to raise the dependent eligibility age to 25 for federal employees.

On that note, health care reform will create a "minimum benefits" standard that all providers will have to meet. One of those requirements is that the dependent eligibility age be increased to 26. FEHBP would be subject to that same requirement.

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Arlington, Va.: Insurance companies currently turn down some claims for funding of treatments, medications, etc. Acting as death panels, if you will. Could anyone prevent this, without causing costs of premiums to skyrocket for everyone?

Rep. Gerry Connolly: One of the basic reforms contained in all five health reform bills is precluding health insurance companies from cherry-picking based on previous existing medical conditions. This is a fundamental reform that affects the 85% of us who already have health insurance, 45% of whom have a previous exisiting medical condition. The capricious and dangerous behavior of the insurance industry in denying claims puts people's health at risk and needs to be outlawed.

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Fairfax VA: Gerry, We congestion price METRO, yet there folks are arguably doing a public service by taking cars off the road.

What is your opinion of congestion pricing the existing lanes on I-66, I-395 & I-95 (but retaining public ownership...) as a revenue source and to encourage trip consolidation? The problem of regressive taxation would be brought up, no doubt, but if implemented moderately under PUBLIC jurisdiction (in line with what a METRO user is tolled to ride the train ($1.50 each way, $3 at rush hour)), and made free for HOV users, it seems to me this could be an effective way to raise stable revenue for transit projects, reduce congestion, and bring down CO2 emissions. In essence this is what we already do on the Dulles Toll Road. There, as you know, the toll funds were critical to the construction of the Silver Line. Similarly moderate tolling on 66, 95, and 395 could work the same way to bring about METRO extension to Centreville, METRO to Landmark, and VRE expansion down the 95 corridor. Such a system would cost very little to implement, yet would seem to accomplish so much. And please note that I propose this in stark contrast to the "Private" Fluor/TRansurban project, which has resulted in heavy subsidies from taxpayers, will be outrageously expensive to use, and fine taxpayers if car-pooling is too successful. Thoughts?

Rep. Gerry Connolly: The problem for me with congestion pricing on existing highways is that you, the taxpayer, have already paid for the construction of that highway. This is true in the case of I-66, I-395, and I-95. Why should you pay to build a road and then pay again to drive on that road?

I have supported the I-495 HOT lane project because the private sector is adding new capacity to the existing roadway. In my mind, that gives my constituents a choice they don't already have, and it is an effecacious use of congestion pricing.

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Northern Virginia: I am horribly depressed and outraged by Governor Wilder's decision not to endorse a courageous fellow Democrat like Creigh Deeds, supposedly over a trumped- up gun issue (when McDonnell is far more pro-gun) and over the fact that Deeds has a realistic plan to actually grapple with our zeroed-out transportation funding in lieu of McDonnell's dishonest math. I feel betrayed by a man I looked up to. I think we're about to see a return of the Gilmore administration, which almost destroyed our financial standing.

Do you think there is any chance Governor Wilder will change his mind again? What's the effect on the outcome of the election and why would Governor Wilder do such a thing?

Rep. Gerry Connolly: I would hope Governor Wilder would reconsider. I was a Delegate pledged to Governor Wilder when our party nominated him for Lt. Governor and for Governor, offices to which he was successfully elected. Had a number of us withheld our endorsement of him, he might never have achieved the political pinnacle in Virginia.

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Arlington, Va.: Passing ENDA and the Matthew Shepard Act, repealing DOMA and DADT. Especially on DOMA, my marriage isn't recognized but my sister's civil marriage is, by both the Federal govt and Virginia. Your stance?

Rep. Gerry Connolly: All of my public career, I have a passionate advocate for equal rights and a strong opponent of discrimination in any form against any group. As Chairman of the Board of Supervisors, I championed anti-discrimination legislation based on sexual orientation.

Here in Congress, I was proud to cosponsor legislation that would allow for domestic partnership benefits for federal employees. I will enthusiastically work to end Don't Ask Don't Tell in the coming months and will look for other opportunities to create and ensure discrimination-free federal policies.

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Vienna, Va.: SAIC! The Post still has yet to pick up on the story, but this makes how many Fortune 500 companies in Tysons?

Rep. Gerry Connolly: I believe that makes 6.

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Rep. Gerry Connolly: I've really enjoyed this hour together. All of the answers are mine and I've tried to answer as many as I possibly can without regard to content. I thank the Post and hope that it will invite me back soon to continue this dialogue.

In the meantime, if I wasn't able to answer your question today please visit my website -- http://connolly.house.gov -- where you can send your question and receive a response.

This Congress is dealing with some very big issues and your thoughts and feedback are critical as we grapple with health care, the economy, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and energy and global warming.

Thank you all!

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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