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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

McMorris Rodgers speaks to small group in Spokane; no town halls planned for recess

Congresswoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers visits the Martin Luther King Jr. Family Outreach Center, Feb. 21, 2017, in Spokane, Wash. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers told a group of eight Eastern Washington residents at a downtown Spokane restaurant Monday she would hold town halls again but preferred small-group discussions about policy.

“I want to set it up to have constructive conversations,” McMorris Rodgers told the group of “Coffee with Cathy” participants who identified across the political spectrum.

The congressional recess for Easter has once again prompted calls in Spokane and nationwide for representatives to publicly answer constituents’ questions in a town hall format. The congresswoman, who has held such events in Spokane during the end-of-summer recess in years past, does not plan to hold one before Congress reconvenes April 24, but Monday’s event was the third of four such small group discussions she’s held during the recess. The last will take place Tuesday with the group Walla Walla Progressives, who identify themselves as opponents of President Donald Trump’s legislative agenda.

Attendees are selected from those who express an interest to McMorris Rodgers’ district office. The congresswoman has faced criticism that these events do not expose her to constituents with differing political opinions.

Roundtable participants Monday pressured McMorris Rodgers on her support for repealing the Affordable Care Act, with a pair of Spokane eye doctors imploring the congresswoman not to remove protections under the law for those with pre-existing conditions. McMorris Rodgers said preserving that portion of the health care law was “a fundamental principle for me,” pointing to her co-sponsorship of a bill ensuring repeal of the health care law would not cause those with pre-existing conditions to lose their coverage.

The congresswoman said coverage for those with pre-existing conditions was one of the reasons the Republican health care plan “really got wrapped around the axle” and ultimately failed to receive the number of votes needed for passage. But she expressed concern about the dwindling number of options on the Affordable Care Act exchanges, citing the Kaiser Foundation’s survey of plans from November indicating 32 percent of the counties in America have just one health plan option.

“I believe we need to get it back to the individual,” the congresswoman said.

The congresswoman also heard from a self-avowed Second Amendment advocate who asked her to work to repeal the ban on carrying firearms in post offices. The suggestion brought rebuke from some others at the table, who said they were worried about guns infiltrating vulnerable areas like schools.

When a Border Patrol agent from Colville asked her to look into a proposed bill that he said would curtail his abilities to work on behalf of his employment union, McMorris Rodgers asked about the recent questioning of passengers at the Greyhound bus station in Spokane, and whether that was a new policy. The agent said the patrol had been asked to cease those checks with two years left to go in the Barack Obama administration.

Multiple attendees of the session, which lasted an hour at the Post Street Ale House near the congresswoman’s downtown Spokane office, asked about her working relationship with Trump and shared concerns about racist graffiti and flyers that have been posted around town in the past several months. McMorris Rodgers said she shared their concerns and was working with community leaders to hold more events promoting unity in town, including working with Spokane NAACP President Phil Tyler.

“I’m very concerned about the divisiveness right now, and where that takes us as a country,” McMorris Rodgers said.

The congresswoman acknowledged that Trump’s actions seemed “unpredictable” at times, but said she had to work with many lawmakers on Capitol Hill she disagreed with. One attendee urged the congresswoman to acknowledge that the makeup of the 5th Congressional District has changed since she entered office and to not ignore their voices.

“I challenge each one of us to focus, and conduct ourselves in a way that’s going to build a stronger community,” McMorris Rodgers said.