CRANFORD, N.J. (AP) — Republican U.S. Rep. Leonard Lance told his constituents, at times to applause, that he opposes President Donald Trump's budget proposal, rejects the GOP-led House's health care overhaul and strongly supports NATO.
Lance, a five-term congressman, contrasted himself with the Republican president on Tuesday during a town hall at Union Community College in northern New Jersey's 7th District, where Trump lost the vote last year.
It was Lance's first town hall since a special counsel was appointed to investigate Russian interference in the presidential contest and since the House narrowly passed a Trump-backed health overhaul bill, which Lance opposed.
"I always vote my conscience, and I will support President Trump where I agree with him and will not support him where I disagree with him," he said.
Tuesday's meeting contrasted with earlier events at which protesters picketed outside and Lance faced regular, angry interruptions.
Lance attributed the difference to his regular meetings with voters and his no vote on the American Health Care Act.
Mary Herald, a retired physician from Summit and a Democrat who previously voted for Lance, said she's seen a "dramatic" change in Lance over the years, from centrist to more conservative. Now he's shifting back to the middle, she said.
"I think he wants to be a good congressman but gets caught in the machine of the Republican Party," Herald said.
Voters expressed anger toward Trump throughout the meeting. One of the biggest reactions came when Alan Gilson, an engineer from Somerville who said he had been a Republican, called the president "morally bankrupt."
"I cannot see myself voting for any Republican for any office for the foreseeable future," he said.
Lance responded, saying he backs the appointment of former FBI Director Robert Mueller as special counsel investigating Russia's influence in the election. Trump has derided the Russia investigation and said there was no collusion between his campaign and the Russians.
Voters applauded when Lance discussed the president's recent trip abroad, including an address to NATO allies. Critics said the president didn't specify his support for a provision in the NATO agreement requiring mutual defense. Lance said he's a strong backer of the alliance and believes in Article 5, the mutual-defense provision.
But it wasn't all applause for Lance. The audience booed him when he said he opposed single-payer health care and supported a ban on federal spending on abortion.
The meeting came after Lance's GOP colleague Tom MacArthur, of New Jersey's 3rd District, hosted a lengthy town hall this month. Angry voters shouted at MacArthur over his amendment that revived the Republicans' American Health Care Act, which aims to replace Democratic former President Barack Obama's health care law.
The GOP health care bill faces an uncertain future in the Senate.
The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office delivered a damaging critique for the GOP-written bill last week. It concluded the measure would create 23 million additional uninsured Americans by 2026 as well as lower premiums for younger and healthy people by letting them buy sparser coverage. It said the measure would confront unhealthy, poorer and older consumers with high out-of-pocket costs.
Lance, an attorney and former state lawmaker known for an amendment to the state constitution calling for voter approval of public debt, has highlighted his differences with Trump and followed that approach on Tuesday.
Trump's $4.1 trillion budget proposal calls for a number of cuts, including to programs for low-income Americans. Lance said he opposed the blueprint and predicted it would not get passed.
Lance and MacArthur have stood out for holding town hall meetings while other New Jersey Republicans such as U.S. Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen and U.S. Rep. Chris Smith have avoided holding them.
"I think my constituents realize I engage in town hall meetings regularly," Lance said, when asked whether the meetings have served as a "pressure release valve" for voters.
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