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Wisconsin Rep. Sensenbrenner On Not Shying Away From Town Halls


Constituent town halls have long been a staple for members of Congress. Lately, though, those meetings have become hotbeds of protest. Democratic groups have organized people in Republican-controlled districts to pack several town halls and speak out against changes to the Affordable Care Act. So members of Congress have skipped or canceled planned meetings but not Representative Jim Sensenbrenner, a Republican from southwest Wisconsin. He's responsible for a quarter of all town halls held by the 289 Republicans in Congress this term. Mr. Sensenbrenner joins us on the line from Delafield, Wisc., which I happen to know is a beautiful suburb of Milwaukee. Thanks very much for being with us.

JIM SENSENBRENNER: Well, thanks for having me, Scott.

SIMON: You're holding your 41st town hall of the term later today, right?

SENSENBRENNER: Yes, we'll start in about a half an hour.

SIMON: Why are they so important to you?

SENSENBRENNER: Well, I've had over 100 town hall meetings face to face every year since I was first elected to Congress in 1978. These are important to me because I'll be able to hear what my constituents have to say, but I will also have to explain to somebody who disagrees with me why I am taking the position I am. And I think having an explanation is a matter of respect when I fall on the other side than someone who is speaking to me would vote and take a position if they occupied the seat that the voters have entrusted to me. And I've gotten two or three ideas at town meetings that I have brought out to Washington, introduced legislation, and they actually passed both houses and were signed into law.

SIMON: Mr. Sensenbrenner, have you had people get to their feet and say, Congressman, if the Affordable Care Act is rolled back, me and/or my family lose our health care coverage, and I don't want that.

SENSENBRENNER: I've heard that quite often. However, my response is is that health insurance will be available to everyone under the replacement plan that, beginning next week, is going to start its way through congressional committees. And the devil is in the details and don't be so hasty in saying that the Affordable Care Act ought to stay the way it is until you see the details of what the replacement will be. What I have said consistently, and the president said it last Tuesday in his address to Congress, is that any replacement plan will prohibit insurance companies from excluding people with preexisting conditions from coverage. That has been the major concern that people have expressed if the Affordable Care Act goes. And I tell them that Speaker Ryan, myself and now the president of United States have said that you don't have to worry about that issue. And...

SIMON: Can - well, let me just ask, Mr. Sensenbrenner, though, could you - can you understand the anxiety of people who, you know, don't know that until the plan is proposed and, you know, for that matter something becomes law? It strikes a lot of people that there's much more concentration on overturning the act than replacing it with something concrete.

SENSENBRENNER: Well, this has been a debate in the campaign, and the voters elected Donald Trump and returned a Republican majority in both houses of Congress. One of the things that I think is sacred is that we live up to our campaign promises. The president is doing it, Speaker Ryan is doing it, and I am doing it. And the people voted for us to repeal and replace Obamacare because there are people that are saying that the plans that are available to me, I've got $500 to $800 a month in premiums, then I've got $5,000 in deductibles, and I have to spend almost $10,000 to $15,000 a year to get coverage before I can collect a penny.

And the problem with that is that middle-income people who don't get any kind of subsidies or tax credits, you know, end up finding that under Obamacare this is unaffordable. And then if they don't have insurance, they get fined by the IRS. All of this is bad. All of this is government controlled and bureaucratic. And what Republicans want to do is to put doctors and patients and patients' families back in charge of people's health care rather than having pencil pushers of the government or in some insurance office doing that job.

SIMON: Let me ask you this - it's reported that some of your constituents yesterday voiced their concern about contact between President Trump's team and Russian officials before the election. Are you concerned?

SENSENBRENNER: Well, if - I think that the Russians tried to meddle in our election, and we ought to get to the bottom of exactly how they did it and make that public. You know, on the other hand, I don't know one person who has changed their vote from Hillary Clinton to Donald Trump because Vladimir Putin wanted them to do that. So I don't think that any Russian meddling was outcome determinative. You know, the Obama administration was meddling in foreign elections. You know, the Senate found out that the Obama administration was taking (ph) people on and maybe financing with public money a campaign against Benjamin Netanyahu in the last Israeli election. Foreign meddling elections is bad whether it's done by the Russians here or by us or anyplace else.

SIMON: Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin, a 38-year veteran of the House of Representatives, thanks so much for being with us, sir.

SENSENBRENNER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.