Sen. Tom Cotton came under fire at a raucous town hall Monday, as constituents pelted the Arkansas Republican on topics ranging from Donald Trump’s tax returns and possible ties to Russia to the GOP push to repeal Obamacare.
It was the latest in a string of confrontations between GOP lawmakers and voters during Congress’ two-week spring recess, coming on the heels of the party’s failed bid to overturn the Democratic health care law. Cotton, a rising star in the Republican Party seen as a potential White House aspirant in time, withstood 90 minutes of boos and occasional cheers from an oft-agitated crowd in Little Rock, Arkansas.
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After House Republicans grappled with contentious town halls in seven states last week, it was Senate Republicans’ turn to squirm on Monday. Nevada GOP Sen. Dean Heller also faced occasional jeers and frustrated queries at his own home-state event. Democrats seized on tense exchanges between Heller — the most vulnerable Senate Republican up for reelection next year — and Obamacare beneficiaries fearful of the GOP repeal effort.
Cotton, by comparison, is not up for reelection until 2020, and represents a safe Republican state. But that did not spare him the ire of voters.
When a man asked Cotton whether he would “take the initiative” to subpoena Trump’s tax returns, which the president has refused to release, Cotton invoked the White House defense that Trump remained under audit by the IRS. That response did not sit well with many in the room.
“Do your job!” one woman shouted as Cotton added that Trump complied with financial disclosure laws that would indicate possible conflicts of interest.
At another point about an hour into the town hall, people yelled “Lock him up!” after Cotton praised Trump’s foreign policy. Others countered with chants of “U.S.A., U.S.A.!” in an apparent attempt to give Cotton some cover.
While House Republicans took the brunt of the immediate political damage from last month’s implosion of their leaders’ Obamacare repeal bill, the American Health Care Act, the rowdy Cotton and Heller town halls suggest that the Senate GOP hasn’t been shielded from the blowback. Both senators took questions alongside House Republican colleagues, Rep. French Hill in Arkansas and Rep. Mark Amodei in Nevada.
Cotton and Heller were among the upper chamber’s biggest Republican critics of the AHCA; Heller was even caught on tape blasting the House bill. Both lawmakers also vowed on Monday to support their states’ expansions of Medicaid coverage under Obamacare.
Heller, however, drew anger from some constituents for insisting that he remains a supporter of Planned Parenthood despite his vote for a deregulatory measure that would allow states to yank federal funding from the organization.
After Amodei expressed support for Planned Parenthood as “one of the outlets” for women’s health programs, the senator said he has “no qualms” about backing the group but that restricting money for it should be left to individual states.
Jessica Mackler, president of the Democratic super PAC American Bridge, accused Heller of trying “to pretend to support Planned Parenthood.”
“After Heller’s lying and lazy performance today, Nevadans know exactly how little he looks out for them — and they will hold him accountable next November,” Mackler said in a statement.
Cotton’s town hall alongside Hill included questions ranging from the congressional investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election to the Arkansas government’s attempt to execute eight men on death row in 11 days, which has faced a number of legal challenges.
Some people in the front row of the event held signs disparaging Trump. Another attendee, before asking about cutting the corporate tax rate, told Cotton he was “thrilled with everything that the Trump administration is doing.” (That remark drew both applause and boos; one person remarked loudly: “What an asshole.”)
“Thank you for coming to Little Rock, finally,” a woman said before asking Cotton whether he was committed to the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.
“I just wondered if you were going to be as forceful as you were about the Russian hacking situation with Donald Trump as you were [in seeking answers about] the Benghazi attack,” she asked, to cheers and applause.
Cotton, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, assured the room that he and the rest of the House Intelligence Committee would continue reviewing the intelligence on Russian meddling in the election and that the investigation would “continue wherever the facts lead us.”
Cotton also pushed back on a number of questions he said were based on inaccurate premises. He was successful several times in getting some attendees to vocally side with him. His remarks about the U.S. advocating for “peace through strength” on the world stage drew cheers from sections of the room that seemed more sympathetic to him.
Cotton’s assertion that Arkansas should execute eight death-row inmates in spite of “liberal judges and lawyers, and washed-up celebrities, and politically correct pharmaceutical companies” drew loud cheers and whistles from the crowd, peppered with sustained boos, shouts and jeers.
One man berated Cotton for supporting another GOP deregulatory measure that would allow internet service providers to sell users’ browsing histories to advertisers and other third parties.
The man slammed Cotton and Sen. John Boozman (R-Ark.) for taking campaign money from the telecommunications industry ahead of the vote, quipping that they must have “read ‘The Art of the Deal.’”
Cotton replied that he was “committed” to the idea of internet privacy but insisted that the measure he supported would “level the playing field” for internet service providers competing with companies like Google and Facebook.
But Cotton’s constituent was unmoved. Unless the senator introduces legislation soon to protect consumers, the Arkansas man said, “I think it’s time to repeal and replace you in 2020.”
He sat down, and the room erupted in cheers.