Judging from the questions asked at US Senator Sheldon Whitehouse‘s “Saturday with Sheldon” event, healthcare is on the minds of a good portion of his constituents.
About 85 people came out to see the Senator and ask difficult questions about the future of Rhode Island under President Donald Trump. Whitehouse was at times optimistic, for instance his observation that the “Vegas odds” on President Trump’s impeachment have gotten better, but at other times he was less sanguine about the future, saying about the Russian investigation, “Until you get people in with subpoenas and documents you don’t have an investigation.”
There were also many questions about immigration. Here Whitehouse seemed less able to reassure his constituents, but he did offer that much of Trump’s rhetoric on the subject is “meaningless.”
First up is Whitehouse’s opening statement, followed by the questions from the audience.
The first question came from Dr J Mark Ryan, chair of the Rhode Island Chapter of Physicians for a National Health Program. Whitehouse demurred on supporting single payer in the short term seeing it as a long term goal. Single payer is Medicare for all. Such a plan would make the federal government responsible for the healthcare costs of all US residents.
As a way to get to single payer, Whitehouse supports a public option, which includes the US government among the choices for insurers under Obamacare. Whitehouse sees this as a way to keep costs down because the federal government can offer lower premiums than insurance companies.
On the Senate approving a replacement for FBI director James Comey, fired last week by Trump, Whitehouse said that he hoped that Senate leaders would make the vote on any replacement require 60 votes, and not a simple majority, recognizing the importance of public trust in the process. Whitehouse does not believe it is in the Republican’s best interest to jam through a political or unqualified candidate.
In a related question, Whitehouse explained the 60 vote rule and cloture.
A question about “how long we have to wait” for Trump’s impeachment drew some laughs from the audience.
RI Senator Harold Metts expressed concerns about Attorney General Jeff Sessions‘ hard line stance on sentencing and prosecution. Such efforts hit hard urban areas such as the one Metts represents. Metts wanted assurances from Whitehouse that re-entry programs, that is, programs designed to help people released from prison to find there way back into society would be maintained.
To investigate Trump’s Russian ties, Whitehouse believes that a full-on independent commission is required. Whitehouse demurred on the need for a special prosecutor. This was one of the more interesting responses from Whitehouse. Whitehouse worries that a special counsel statute crafted by the Republican controlled Senate might make it a political position rather than a position truly interested in the truth. “I want to know how they’re going to make the special counsel statute work before I start pulling for a special counsel…”
A second question about healthcare.
“Another voice in favor of single-payer.”
RI Senator Ana Quezada wants to know if the communities of South Providence that she represents can get some of the jobs being brought to Rhode Island.
She also asked about Vice President Michael Pence. Many, said Quezada, are as worried about his presidency as they are about Trump. Whitehouse felt that Pence would be easier to beat in 2020.
A question on immigration reform and the dangers of a Trump presidency to immigrants. For the Liberian community, said Whitehouse, the temporary visas were being extended every two years. Now, that process seems more difficult.
Dr. James Cowan pushed back against the public option as a way of getting to single payer. The public option will become a dumping ground for high-risk, high-cost patients, and the expense will be so great that opponents will argue against the feasibility of single payer. Instead, suggested Cowan, we should be lowering the age of Medicare coverage over time, from 65 to 55 and so one, until everyone is covered.
In response to a question about “Sanctuary Cities” Whitehouse said that the term has no legal meaning and that US Attorney General Jeff Sessions is being political when he uses that term. Whitehouse feels that Trump’s executive orders and rhetoric around such issues is meaningless.
Where health care intersects with immigration status is a “pretty harsh line” said Whitehouse. There are not many options available for people who are “not legally here.”
Whitehouse feels that Trump’s attacks on the free press have actually reinvigorated and mobilized the press.
As far as reducing defense spending, Whitehouse made light of a bill from Senator Rand Paul before making a more serious response. Whitehouse would like to see the budget hold to a system where the domestic budget would increase at the same rate as the military budget.
The next question allowed Whitehouse to elaborate on he 2018 strategy to take back the House of Representatives from Republican control, which Whitehouse thought possible. Whitehouse was less hopeful about Democrats taking back the Senate.
A question on how to best help small businesses sent Whitehouse back to healthcare.
State Senator Ana Quezada said that when she is wakling door-to-door in her community, people ask her why a Democrat-controlled congress, with a Democrat as president, could not come up with an immigration reform bill.