A conservative member of the House Freedom Caucus came under fire from a hostile liberal crowd at a town hall meeting in the typically Republican-friendly Eastern Shore of Maryland on Friday.
At the same time, U.S. Rep. Andy Harris distanced himself from the top two Republicans in his party: dismissing President Trump’s proposed federal budget and backing the congressional investigation into his campaign’s ties to Russia, while suggesting possible displeasure at Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.).
Fielding a question about whether there was an effort to replace Ryan, Harris responded, “Not at this time.” (His spokeswoman said he’s very supportive of the speaker).
A woman in the crowd retorted, “What about replacing Andy Harris?”
The packed 900-person auditorium at Chesapeake College in Wye Mills, Md., burst into applause and cheers, according to a live stream of the event. Many held up signs with their Zip codes as reminders they live in his district.
The town hall came a week after House leadership pulled legislation to repeal and replace Obamacare that lacked support from a bloc of moderates and conservative hard-liners, including Harris, ending Trump’s first major legislative fight in defeat.
Trump threatened this week to try to knock off members of the Freedom Caucus as retaliation.
Harris’s town hall provided little insight into how his conservative constituents who reelected him with 68 percent of the vote in November reacted to his standoff with the president. Instead, he was jeered by hundreds of people organized by the Maryland Democratic Party, its local affiliates and grass-roots Indivisible groups.
The night’s turbulence started early, when a local high school ROTC’s presentation of colors and Pledge of Allegiance to kick off the event ended in audience members repeatedly reiterating the closing phrase of the pledge, “Justice for all.”
Harris, a physician first elected in the 2010 tea party wave, agreed to take questions submitted on notecards and read by a moderator, a measure to prevent the angry tongue-lashings his Republican colleagues in other parts of the country have received over the last several months. But first, he wanted to present a 10-slide PowerPoint explaining the nation’s finances and his case for deeper cuts to the federal health law than proposed by the House leadership.
Three minutes and three slides later, a frustrated crowd erupted into shouts.
“If you take time for this, it’s less time for questions,” Harris warned, later leaning over onto the lectern as the audience members refused to relent.
“That’s exactly the point!” someone shouted back.
The moderator, of the bipartisan No Labels group, pleaded with the crowd to let the congressman finish his presentation. But each successive slide, on the rising costs of Medicaid and health insurance premiums, were interrupted by boos and cries of “single payer,” support for universal government-funded health coverage.
Attendees said they wanted to send a message to Harris that he faced hometown opposition to his efforts to repeal the federal health law, even if he played a role in derailing the last attempt.
“Is it great the repeal failed? Yes. But from our point of view, the reasons they didn’t vote were because it wasn’t bad enough for the American people and it wasn’t enough of a tax break to the top 2 percent,” said Michael Feldman, a 31-year-old sales consultant who leads a recently formed Wicomico County progressive group. “This kind of grass-roots activism and organization is unprecedented, at least in recent history.”
Almost every question posed to Harris demanded explanations for his conservative votes and whether he’d support scrutiny of the president.
Harris said he wanted Trump to release his tax returns, but that the American people indicated they didn’t mind by electing him president.
He also declined to support an independent investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election, saying the House Intelligence Committee should conclude its review first. He also said he didn’t have enough information to call on Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) to step down as head of the intelligence panel amid accusations he is too close to the White House to lead an independent probe.
“They are going to have hearings on this whole issue, and they are going to find out whether or not Chairman Nunes said something or did something that would disqualify him from being chair,” said Harris. “I don’t have the clearance to get that information.”
“It was on the news!” an incredulous audience member responded.
Harris did offer a cooler reception to Trump on his proposed federal budget.
On the proposed elimination of a $73 million annual program to clean up the polluted Chesapeake Bay, he said, “I support that program, and I said it publicly,” one of his few applause lines.
Later, he offered a dismissive view of the president’s call for deep cuts to the National Institutes of Health, NASA and other federal agencies with employees in Maryland.
“The president really has no say what the appropriations are. The House and Senate do.”
Harris faced some of his harshest reception when he defended calls to defund Planned Parenthood and expressed doubt on whether human activity and carbon dioxide emissions are the leading cause of climate change.
At one point, Harris became so frustrated by the crowd that he stopped answering a question about his support for legislation allowing Internet providers to collect and sell users browsing histories.
“In a free marketplace, you have a choice of going to an Internet service provider that shares your information or one that —” Harris said, before he was cut off by boos.
“No you don’t!” someone snapped.
He asked the moderator for the next question, to even greater boos.