U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg stopped Friday in Hamilton for another of his town hall-style meetings, but the gathering proved long on rhetoric, jeers and cheers and short on substantive solutions.
About 600 people gathered at the Hamilton Performing Arts Center to discuss health care reform and other issues for two hours.
Most of the people who took the microphone spoke in favor of health care reform that includes a public option.
But those sentiments prompted boos, jeers and mutterings from much of the audience, which appeared to oppose a public option.
Rehberg, who has hosted 16 “listening” sessions this August, stuck mostly to answering questions from people lined up at the microphone.
But at one point, he looked into the audience to a woman in a wheelchair who held a small sign saying 83 percent of Americans favor a public option.
“Not according to the polls I’ve seen,” Rehberg said, prompting some in the audience to heckle the woman.
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Rehberg opened the meeting with a wide-ranging statement that recapped his personal life and congressional career.
He also praised loggers, fiscal conservatives and Tea Party participants, blamed national forest land managers and environmentalists and pushed for more domestic oil, gas and coal production.
He urged Americans to “bypass” the media and communicate directly with him and each other on the congressman’s Facebook and Twitter pages.
Rehberg also criticized President Obama and others who favor an expanded federal government.
“I love Barack Obama,” he said, “because he’s created such a contrast between them and me.”
Referring to the contentious public meetings about health care reform in many states, Rehberg said he had been called a liar four times in a Thursday meeting in Bozeman.
“But it was by the same woman,” he said, chuckling.
The first speaker said Medicaid provided good coverage for his dying mother and he urged Rehberg to support a public option
The congressman said health care needs to be more affordable and accessible, but he repeatedly opposed a public option, especially one modeled after Medicare and Medicaid.
He said those two programs were hampered by the kind of waste, fraud and abuse that are common in the federal government.
“Why expand a broken government system?” he said.
Rehberg said providing a public option would benefit illegal immigrants and drive private health care insurers out of business and result in health care rationing.
“Are we going to destroy the best health care system in the world?” he said.
The congressman said he favored reforming the health care system by providing tax credits and incentives, creating more health care pools, protecting doctors from malpractice suits, training more general practice physicians and raising Medicare and Medicaid reimbursements.
Rehberg drew applause when he criticized using stimulus funds for Head Start, the federal program that provides nutrition, education and other services for low-income children.
“How does that stimulate the economy,” he said, adding that a better choice would be to suspend payroll taxes for a year.
Throughout the meeting, advocates and opponents of a public option offered no serious disruptions, but both sides regularly interrupted with applause, boos and cat calls.
One man drew cheers when he blamed America’s woes on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s “neo-Marxist onslaught,” the global warming “hoax” and “illegal squatters.”
One woman asked Rehberg to refute three “myths” about a public option - that it would pay for illegal immigrants and abortions and influence end-of-life decisions.
But Rehberg said those things might be covered in a public option because they haven’t been specifically excluded in the various bills in the House and Senate.
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Reporter John Cramer can be reached at 363-3300 or firstname.lastname@example.org.