PALCO, Kan. (AP) — Kansas Sen. Jerry Moran faced tough questions Thursday at a town hall meeting in his home county packed with critics of Republican efforts to overhaul health care, showing that even a tiny town deep in Trump territory in a Republican state isn't isolated from the political discontent in Washington.
Moran had his first town hall meeting of the short Fourth of July congressional break in Palco, a town with fewer than 300 residents about 270 miles (435 kilometers) west of the Kansas City area, the kind of event he's held hundreds of times over the past two decades. Palco is in Rooks County, where Moran grew up. President Donald Trump carried it with 84 percent of the vote in last year's presidential race, and there is no organized Democratic Party.
But about 150 people tried to squeeze into a community center room set up to hold less than half that number, with many of them from outside the area. While the audience applauded Moran for opposing a health care bill written by Senate GOP leaders, the applause was louder for speakers who advocated a universal government-run health care program such as Medicare for the elderly or Medicaid for the poor.
Moran announced last week that he would oppose the Senate Republican bill as currently drafted after a budget analysis suggested 22 million more people would be uninsured under the proposal by 2026. Moran said the legislation needs to protect coverage for people with pre-existing conditions and not hurt rural hospitals.
"I will choose country over party," Moran said. "I will choose Kansans over party."
Like many other Republican lawmakers, Moran has been a persistent critic of the Affordable Care Act championed by former President Barack Obama and filed legislation during the Democrat's administration to repeal it. Moran said a person's view of the 2010 law could depend upon whether they get coverage through an employer or have to search for it as individuals.
"There are people who tell me they are better off, and I believe them, and there are people who are less well off," Moran said of the Affordable Care Act.
The repeal push still has the support of many Republican voters in the area, including Ashley Kuhn, the 32-year-old director of a day care center down Main Street from where Moran had his town hall. She said she's seen her family's health insurance co-payments double and deductibles rise, and she blames it on Obama's signature health care law.
"Health care needs to be changed," she said.
But Moran's town hall drew supporters of Planned Parenthood and members of health care advocacy groups from as far away as the Kansas City area. They asked him whether any ordinary Kansan would benefit under the Senate GOP's plan and whether he would vote against any bill that didn't have public hearings.
Moran wouldn't rule out a "yes" vote in such an instance, telling the audience member who asked, "I know that's not the answer you were looking for" and getting a quick reply back, "No."
In a community where several stores and cars were festooned with anti-abortion messages, a Planned Parenthood lobbyist from Topeka, Elise Higgins, asked Moran what he would do to see that its patients still could have their services covered by Medicaid, Moran told her he didn't have a "good answer." An audience member said, "You need a better one, then, senator."
Some audience members came to press Moran to pursue a bipartisan solution that built on the existing health care law and moved the nation toward broader government coverage.
"Who doesn't want health care?" Jeff Zamrzla, a retired and disabled Marine and 59-year-old Democratic activist from Salina, about 100 miles (160 kilometers) to the east of Palco, said after the forum. "Who doesn't want to be able to live a life that's worth living?"
At times, audience members seemed more ready to debate each other than to press Moran. When one man said, "You can't get the Democrats to do anything," several people shouted back, "That's not true!"
Moran has built his reputation in Kansas politics as approachable and somewhat affable during 14 years in the U.S. House representing western Kansas and in the Senate since 2011. As a Senator from a sprawling state, he makes a point of visiting each of the 105 counties every two years. He planned events Friday in Sublette and Liberal in southwest Kansas. He defended the choice of Palco as a venue, saying residents of small towns should have chances to interact with elected officials.
Follow John Hanna on Twitter at https://twitter.com/apjdhanna .