U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz emphasized his commitment to resisting President Donald Trump’s agenda while working toward the “sweet spot” of bipartisanship during a town hall meeting Tuesday at the University of Hawaii at Hilo.
The meeting was one of two hosted by Hawaii’s Washington delegation. U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard spoke during an evening event.
More than 350 people attended Schatz’s town hall, with the Democratic senator taking questions from the audience for an hour and a half.
“We’re in incredibly challenging times,” Schatz said. “We’ve all been kind of trying to figure out what is our new role as citizens.”
The “unprecedented citizen engagement” regarding Trump’s executive orders and Cabinet nominees was “really extraordinary,” Schatz said. “And the one thing I’ll tell you is it gave me strength, it gave me motivation.”
Schatz is chief deputy whip and a member of four Senate committees: Appropriations; Indian Affairs; Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs;
and Commerce, Science and Transportation.
Most questions focused on domestic policy, with constituents asking Schatz to weigh in on Trump’s proposed budget, net neutrality, LGBT rights, Planned Parenthood, environmental protections and Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch.
The lone Hawaii Island-specific question centered on regulation of helicopter noise. Schatz said his staff has been working with state representatives to try to come up with an action plan and that the matter was a priority.
“I will follow up; I just don’t want to pretend I have a ready answer, when I don’t,” he said.
Regarding domestic matters, Schatz appeared optimistic about Democrats’ ability to work on smaller bipartisan initiatives, such as increasing rural broadband and securing Medicare reimbursement for telemedicine, while “fighting like cats and dogs about the big stuff.”
“We are going to lose more than we win, but we have won a heck of a lot more than I thought at this point,” he said.
In the wake of Republicans pulling their health care legislation after pushback from constituents, the majority party “recalibrate(d) their appetite for political risk,” Schatz said. “The thing I think is exciting is you see how momentum breeds momentum. The failure of Trumpcare impacts the way they deal with the next thing.”
He assured attendees he would continue to seek funding for climate research and family planning, and that Democrats would keep officials such as Environmental Protection Agency administrator Scott Pruitt accountable to environmental laws such as the Clean Water Act.
“He (Pruitt) is duty bound to follow those laws,” Schatz said. “He cannot defund the EPA without our acquiescence.”
Schatz discussed Trump’s foreign policy twice, describing it as “entirely unpredictable and reckless,” as he answered questions about North Korea and Syria.
Regarding the possibility of war with North Korea, Schatz said he received classified briefings on the matter and could not give a full overview, but that “you should let me do the worrying, and I don’t think it should worry you every morning.”
“There isn’t zero risk, but it’s not the kind of thing you should be wringing your hands over,” he said. “On the war fighting plans, we have them, but they’re awful not just for us, but for our allies in the region and our friends in South Korea. … Regarding missiles, I’ll just say that we’re doing everything that can be done.
“This is a very difficult situation, but it is probably not as bad as it looked on Friday night (when North Korea was preparing to test a missile).”
On Syria, Schatz said he thought the president overstepped his executive powers in ordering Tomahawk missile strikes two weeks ago, and added, to a round of applause, that “Congress has to reassert its authority to declare war.”
“Let me start with this: We should not have any lack of clarity about who (Syria’s President Bashar Assad) is, about how unusually murderous he is, about how outside of the norm, even for a brutal dictator,” he said. “I believe there should be a post-Assad Syria. I do not believe the U.S. military is going to be able to precipitate that happening, at least not in any way that would make the situation (worse).
“Assad is an awful man, I want to be as clear as I can about that, but attacking a government requires a new AUMF (Authorization for Use of Military Force).”
Elizabeth Miller of Volcano said she thought the event was educational, particularly on less headline-grabbing topics such as net neutrality, but would have liked more insight into the most effective ways of building grass-roots coalitions.
“I was an activist in the ’60s,” Miller said. “I have not been this motivated to be active since then.”
U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz speaks during a town hall meeting Tuesday at the University of Hawaii at Hilo.