Topeka Republican U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran of Kansas found himself on the defensive during a town hall meeting in Topeka Friday as constituents pressed him over his support for repealing and replacing Obamacare and why he hasn't been more forceful in denouncing controversial statements by President Donald J. Trump about violence at a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va.
Moran was one of the few Republican senators who did call out Trump directly this week after Trump spoke at a news conference Tuesday and said both the white supremacists and the counter-protesters in Charlottesville deserved equal blame for the violence that ensued, resulting in one woman's death and many injuries.
But some in the audience of roughly 200 people at an American Legion post in Topeka said they think more needs to be done, and they asked whether he would support legislation to stop the spread of American hate groups.
Moran, however, said the problem of racial and ethnic hatred in America requires more than legislation to solve.
"I can't pass a law and change people's behaviors, attitudes, or their thoughts, their soul," Moran said. "We need to have parents, and unfortunately schools now have to be involved because of the absence of parents, our churches, our synagogues, we need people with a moral compass. All of us are failures, all of us sin. There is no perfect here. But we also always need to recognize right from wrong."
The audience was decidedly more left-wing than Moran's political base, which comes from the conservative, rural parts of western Kansas that he represented first in the Kansas Legislature, and later in the U.S. House. There were several people from the "Indivisible" movement that has sprung up since Trump's election, as well as a number of anti-gun activists.
One woman in the audience shouted out that she thought it was time to invoke the 25th Amendment, which provides a mechanism for having the vice president assume power if the president is unfit. Others called out for a congressional censure of the president. But Moran said he was not prepared to go that far.
"I don't support censure of the president, at least based upon what I know today," Moran said, prompting boos and jeers from the audience. "Again, we need to do things that pull us together, not pull us apart."
Criticism of Trump dominated much of the town hall session, which lasted a little more than an hour. And there was spontaneous applause when someone in the audience who'd been checking for news updates on his smartphone shouted out that Trump's chief strategist, Breitbart founder Steve Bannon, had been fired from his job in the White House.
But many people in the audience also had come to talk about health care.
Moran has been a swing vote in the debate over whether to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare. He came out against an initial Republican plan to overhaul the health care law, helping to prevent it from coming to the floor of the Senate. But he supported a second version of that plan in July, even though the bill still failed to get the necessary 51 votes for passage.
One person in the audience submitted a written question, asking whether Moran would support a single-payer government-run health insurance program.
"Get out your red cards, I am certainly not there," Moran said, referring to the red and green cards people used to show their disagreement or agreement with the senator. "I think we have a lot of work to get to before we get to that conversation. We need to fix the underlying cost of health care before you ask government, the taxpayers, to add more to their responsibilities."
But Topeka resident John Wall took Moran to task on that statement.
"If we know that that's probably where we're going to end up, if we know that 10 years from now or 15 years from now, that's where we're going to end up, shouldn't that be what we're laying groundwork for?" he asked.
"I guess what I would say is, I don't know that's where we're going," Moran replied. "I think those decisions will be made as a result of elections that occur into the future. ... I'm not willing to concede yet that that's the best opportunity for health care for Americans."
"It is for the rest of the industrialized world," a woman called out from the audience.
Moran noted that he recently held a town hall meeting in Lenexa where more than 400 people turned out, mainly to talk about health care and to oppose Republican efforts to repeal and replace Obamacare.
He said that was the second-largest town hall he has ever conducted since being elected to Congress. The largest, he said, was one held just after Obamacare passed in 2012, sparking widespread criticism from conservatives and the birth of the tea party movement.