Ryan draws na­tional at­ten­tion at town halls

Fac­ing mostly law­maker friendly crowds also an­swers crit­ics

USA TODAY US Edition - - NATION - By Gre­gory Korte USA TO­DAY

GREEN­FIELD, Wis. — At the last of four events on Rep. Paul Ryan’s “ lis­ten­ing tour” of his district Thurs­day, he called on a man in the front row of a high school au­di­to­rium, then in­stantly rec­og­nized him.

“ You changed clothes!” Ryan told Steve Joze­fczyk. The 54year old sales­man from Franklin, Wis., had asked Ryan sev­eral crit­i­cal ques­tions from the front row of an event six hours ear­lier in Wa­ter­ford, when he wore a shirt and tie. In Green­field, it was a black “ Faux News” par­ody T-shirt.

Josefczyk ad­mit­ted try­ing to trick Ryan into call­ing on him again. But Ryan lis­tened any­way. “ You have to look at the rev­enue side and the ex­pense side. And you’re afraid to touch rev­enues,” he told the House Bud­get Com­mit­tee chair­man.

It’s a com­mon ques­tion, and Ryan has a com­mon re­sponse: “ Broaden the base,” he says. By elim­i­nat­ing tax de­duc­tions and shel­ters for top-earn­ers, “ you can shrink or flat­ten the tax rates for ev­ery­body.”

With Congress wrap­ping up a two-week Easter break, lawmakers across the coun­try have been back home meet­ing with con­stituents.

The bud­get — and es­pe­cially Medi­care — is the hot topic ev­ery­where, nowhere more so than in Ryan’s south­ern Wis­con­sin district. Ryan is the ar­chi­tect of a GOP bud­get plan that would fun­da­men­tally re­make the health care pro­gram for se­niors.

In the district that has elected the 41-year-old con­gress­man seven times, con­stituents — es­pe­cially older ones — were largely sup­port­ive. The first com­ment at the first of four stops Thurs­day — a mostly friendly room in the base­ment of Wa­ter­ford Vil­lage Hall — came from Ken Thiede, 68-yearold re­tiree from Rochester, Wis.

“ Your op­po­nents are us­ing Scare-Care,” Thiede said. “ I give you an ‘ A’ for co­jones.”

Ryan de­murred at the word, but the au­di­ence laughed. “ It’s a Ger­man term,” Thiede said. Pointed ques­tions

Some of the most pointed ques­tions were along the lines of those posed by Amy Ki­nosian, a 58-year-old fifth-grade teacher from Ea­gle, Wis.

“ Did you vote for both wars in Iraq and Afghanista­n? Did you vote for any off­set­ting bud­get cuts?” she asked. “ You voted for Medi­care Part D— again with no fund­ing.”

Ryan said he did vote for the wars and for Medi­care Part D — the pre­scrip­tion-drug pro­gram passed by a Repub­li­can Congress in 2003. In fact, he said, it should be a model for what he wants to do to Medi­care as a whole.

With Part D, Medi­care sub­si­dizes a num­ber of com­pet­ing pre­scrip­tion drug plans, which older Amer­i­cans can choose from. The Con­gres­sional Bud­get Of­fice has said the cost of that plan is 41% lower than ex­pected.

Ex­tend­ing that competitio­n to all of Medi­care will bring down health care costs, he said — es­pe­cially if health in­surance com­pa­nies can sell plans across state lines like other types of in­sur­ers. “ You can’t watch TV for an hour with­out hav­ing a gecko lizard thingy try­ing to sell you car in­surance,” he says in an oft-re­peated laugh line.

Be­gin­ning in 2022, Ryan’s plan would ask new re­tirees to se­lect a health in­surance plan from among a list ap­proved by the gov­ern­ment, which would pro­vide a sub­sidy to the provider. But guar­an­teed ben­e­fits would be elim­i­nated.

At each stop, Ryan asks for a show of hands from those 55 and older. ( At least four-fifths were.) They wouldn’t be af­fected, he said.

“ But what about mine!” heck­led a young man in the back of the room in Green­field, Wis. He de­clined to give his name.

Democrats have seized on mo­ments like these as ev­i­dence that there’s a back­lash de­vel­op­ing against Ryan’s bud­get. Af­ter Ryan was booed at an ear­lier town hall, House Demo­cratic leader Nancy Pelosi is­sued a state­ment: “ Chair­man Ryan, the peo­ple, in­clud­ing your con­stituents, are talk­ing. Are you lis­ten­ing?”

Ryan said he is. And while he couldn’t iden­tify any in­put that would cause him to re­think his plan, he said, “ I never look at these bud­gets as a fait ac­com­pli.” The bud­get res­o­lu­tion hasn’t got­ten to the Se­nate, and many of the de­tails would get worked out in fol­low-up bills.

The crowds are rem­i­nis­cent of the con­gres­sional town hall meet­ings in the sum­mer of 2009, as Democrats de­fended the health in­surance law known as the Affordable Care Act. “ The size is as high, and the pas­sion is as high,” Ryan told USA TO­DAY.

Ryan had 19 pub­lic events sched­uled for Congress’ Easter break — many in ca­pac­ity-filled rooms through­out his district. They started last week in li­braries and se­nior cen­ters, but by Thurs­day sev­eral had to be moved into high school gym­na­si­ums to ac­com­mo­date larger crowds. In Wa­ter­ford, dozens who ar­rived 20 min­utes early were turned away. In Oak Creek, 30 peo­ple stood in the lobby af­ter a 220-seat court­room filled up. At the last stop, none of the 800 seats in a high school au­di­to­rium were left empty.

“ Gosh, Wa­ter­ford, we’re lucky if we can get 12 peo­ple here for town hall meet­ings,” he told a room of 250 peo­ple. So many tele­vi­sion sta­tions and net­works wanted him to wear wire­less mi­cro­phones that “ I look like Bat­man wear­ing this,” Ryan joked. Even crit­ics more play­ful

Ryan asked crowds to show the na­tional me­dia cov­er­ing the events that Wis­con­sinites can dis­cuss is­sues civilly — and they mostly com­plied. He even had to ad­mit some of the ques­tions were soft­balls. In Franklin, a man asked how the GOP bud­get com­pared to the bud­get passed last year when Pelosi, D-Calif., was speaker.

“ They didn’t have a bud­get last year,” Ryan said. “ But I take it that was a set-up ques­tion.”

Even some of his crit­ics were more play­ful than crit­i­cal of him. Ki­nosian, the fifth-grade teacher, said she sup­ports an al­ter­nate bud­get pro­posed by the Con­gres­sional Pro­gres­sive Cau­cus, which she said is “ just as gutsy” as the Ryan plan.

“ Ob­vi­ously, they’re not as boy­ishly hand­some as you are,” she said.

Pho­tos by Dar­ren Hauck for USA TO­DAY

House Bud­get Com­mit­tee Chair­man: Paul Ryan speaks at Franklin High School , as he tours through­out his district over the Easter re­cess, some­times mak­ing five stops in a day.

“ Lis­ten­ing tour”: Amy Ki­nosian lis­tens as Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., an­swers her ques­tions at the Vil­lage Hall in Wa­ter­ford, Wis.

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