A boisterous crowd of more than 500 grilled Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., with questions at a town hall meeting Friday morning at Elkhorn South High School.
Sasse seemed prepared for the combative crowd and stayed patient, pausing often to ask the audience to stop yelling over him as he fielded their many pointed concerns, mostly about health care legislation and President Donald Trump’s budget proposal. Scheduled to last an hour, the event stretched to 90 minutes.
Sasse repeatedly addressed the issue of polarization, which he said was more acute on Capitol Hill than in Nebraska.
“This nation is more divided in Washington than any coffee shop in Nebraska,” he said as the meeting began.
It was hard to tell that, however, from the tone of the questions and the audience reactions Friday. The loudest voices at the town hall were in opposition to recent Republican actions.
Several people lined up at the microphone with questions about the House GOP plan to replace the Affordable Care Act, which is often called Obamacare. Sasse called the Republican proposal “not a sufficient answer to the problems we face” and said he supports a “system of portability,” meaning health care plans that would follow someone as they age, change jobs and move around the country.
“The number one reason people are uninsured in America is not because of socioeconomic status,” Sasse said. Rather, he said, it’s because of people changing jobs.
One woman grew emotional as she expressed concerns about in-home health care for the elderly in rural areas. Sasse said neither the current law nor the Republican replacement plan would do enough for those populations.
That answer prompted booing and shouts of “How would you vote?” Sasse replied that the issue, like many, wasn’t a binary choice.
“We need a much more nimble conversation than ‘good versus evil’ or ‘legislation X versus Y,’” Sasse said.
As Sasse addressed the first few questions on health care legislation, audience members shouted “single payer” and “free market” and waved red pieces of paper to indicate they didn’t support his answers. Raising his own voice to overcome the shouting, Sasse asked: “What are we going to get out of people screaming slogans?”
Sasse told some critics at the Omaha event that their positions — especially on environmental regulations — weren’t necessarily representative of rural Nebraskans. He said he supported more state and local regulations rather than federal ones.
Deja Weber of Bennington said she felt Sasse was being dismissive.
“The room was clearly not in his favor,” she said. “But it’s annoying to be told that I’m part of some group that doesn’t represent the state. That was condescending.”
As a registered independent, Weber said, she tries to listen to both sides and has supported Sasse.
“I’m just glad he had the courage to show up,” she said. “He definitely bristled at some of the issues but it seems like he came in expecting a crowd like this.”
As several people voiced concerns about proposed budget cuts and an increased military budget, Sasse noted that 70 percent of the budget goes to entitlement programs.
“Defense spending isn’t what’s cutting out your priorities, entitlements are,” he said to more booing.
Sasse also spoke briefly on Trump’s attempted travel ban, saying that he did not support Trump’s first proposal. He did not specifically address the president’s second proposal, except to say that he did support better vetting systems to ensure terrorists can’t come in as refugees.
“It’s happened a whole bunch of times in Europe,” he said to loud booing and shouting.
“The U.S. is not at war with Islam,” he said. “We are at war with people who will kill in the name of religion.”
Sasse did earn enthusiastic cheering when he said a release of Trump’s tax returns would be “in the public interest” and that building a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border would not be the “most effective means” for border security.
Barry Anderson, 65, a Republican, said he wished the audience would have refrained from interrupting the senator.
“Passions are high on all sides, as they should be,” he said. “I’m just glad he held the town hall and that so many people came to voice their concerns.”