BETHLEHEM, Pa. – Providing aid to victims of Hurricane Harvey, tax reform, and overhauling the Affordable Care Act will likely be top priorities when the Senate returns to session next week, Republican Sen. Pat Toomey said Thursday night during a long-awaited town-hall meeting that some critics described as "fake."
Constituents had been asking for months that the senator hold a public, in-person meeting – something he recently had been doing only over the phone or, occasionally, with protesters who gathered outside his office.
Summer town halls, once considered friendly forums for many legislators, have been rough for many Republicans this year.
Toomey's meeting, held inside a PBS39 studio and broadcast live, was not terribly dramatic; by many standards, it was tame. Only one person was removed, after he asked a question that could not be heard by everyone in the room.
But some critics also called it fake because of its comparatively small crowd size and structured format.
Toomey told the crowd he expected aid for victims of Hurricane Harvey to pass Congress in the next week or two, possibly with other measures wrapped into it to fund the federal government.
He also said he would like to reform "what might be the worst tax code in the world," calling for lower tax rates for businesses as well as consolidating some tax brackets for individuals.
Toomey said he would like to find a way to revamp the Affordable Care Act so that Americans who have been buying coverage just to comply with the law won't be as burdened by increasing costs.
"It's not OK to just tear it all up," he told the audience members, who listened politely.
The people who rely on the ACA, he said, "need a smooth transition."
Outside the studio, a couple of dozen protesters spoke about immigration, the president's recent ban on transgender people serving in the armed forces, a desire to protect the Affordable Care Act, and their hopes for a larger, less regulated public meeting with the senator. A nearly equal number of police officers stood guard – some on foot and some on horses.
Inside the studio, chairs had been set aside for 54 people – some of whom didn't show up. Some seats were reserved for members of the local Republican and Democratic committees. Thirty were for members of the general public.
"It's just the mutually agreed-upon number," Toomey spokesman Steve Kelly said without elaborating.
People could submit questions ahead of time, with PBS39, the Allentown Morning Call, and Muhlenberg College deciding which of the roughly 400 submissions would be asked. A moderator said the senator had not reviewed the questions before the meeting.
When people arrived, they received a green card if their question had been selected. They were told to write down the question they had submitted. It was OK if it was off by a word or two, but the gist, they were told, should be the same.
One man, identified only by his first name during the broadcast, asked Toomey about the format.
"This is a fake town hall," he told the senator before asking: "What would it take to have a real town hall with hundreds of people and a dialogue rather than a one-way conversation?"
Toomey responded by saying that there had been a "two-way" conversation and that he has "had more town halls than any other statewide elected official" that he knows of. He said he has held 75 meetings over the telephone, prompting loud boos or groans from some in the audience.
"Let's be candid," the senator said. "There are some people that don't want to have a constructive conversation. There are some people that want to have a destructive event."