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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

McMorris Rodgers discusses refugees, meets privately with constituents on health care in district visit

A group of protesters, including David Jones, left, and Diane Belyea, right, stand in the rain outside Cathy McMorris Rodgers’ office building to make a point that the congresswoman has not been meeting regularly with constituents in town hall settings. While the protesters were out Monday, Feb. 20, 2017, McMorris Rodgers was in a small group meeting in a nearby building. Jesse Tinsley/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
By Kip Hill and Jonathan Glover The Spokesman-Review

Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers spent her Monday in Spokane discussing refugee issues and meeting privately with constituents concerned about health care, amid calls for more public appearances to address the policies of President Donald Trump.

The congresswoman’s only event open to the press Monday was a morning meeting with members of the service organizations World Relief and Global Neighborhood, which provide assistance to refugees relocating to Spokane. McMorris Rodgers said in an interview after the meeting that she understood the anxiety expressed by members of the city’s refugee community and those who work with them, but the country needed to act in the interest of public safety.

“I think it’s important to remember why we got to where we are,” McMorris Rodgers said, referencing the attacks in Paris carried out in November 2015 that killed 130 people and were claimed by Muslim extremists.

McMorris Rodgers said she supported efforts to put the nation’s immigration system “on pause” while the country’s vetting processes are re-evaluated, a refrain from Trump and his team before and after signing an executive order targeting majority Muslim nations that was struck down after being challenged by the Washington state attorney general’s office.

“Clearly, the executive order had created some confusion,” McMorris Rodgers said. “I think there could have been more clarity.”

The White House is expected to issue another draft of its travel restrictions order later this week.

Mark Finney, a resettlement specialist with World Relief, said the meeting allowed staff members – some of them refugees themselves – an opportunity to explain the difficulties of navigating the immigration process and finding needed services in the community.

“Our goal, right now, is to make sure we tell the stories of refugees who are here in our community,” Finney said. “It really felt like the congresswoman heard some of our stories.”

Finney said World Relief is likely facing significant staff reductions because of the cap Trump’s order placed on resettlement, a restriction that is expected to stay in place despite the successful legal challenge of the action because it singled out people based on their religion. A significant portion of the group’s funding comes from resettlement payments doled out by the federal government that will diminish as fewer people are allowed in.

Brent Hendricks, founder of Global Neighborhood, acknowledged that there is little Congress can do to pre-empt Trump’s actions on immigration, but hoped the message got through to the congresswoman that their concerns, and the work of the nonprofit, were valid.

“In one sense, she doesn’t really have any say,” said Hendricks. “On another level, she carries influence as a Republican member of Congress. We can inform her of what the situation is really like, in the hopes she will take that into consideration when deciding whether or not to publicly support or oppose anything that’s coming from the White House.”

A notice that the meeting would be held, and open to the media, was sent out Monday morning through the congresswoman’s press office, about 20 minutes before the roundtable was scheduled to begin.

The congresswoman held several private meetings Monday afternoon, including a “Coffee with Cathy” event, to address specific issues. Those who participated received invitations from McMorris Rodgers’ staff, and included Gail Furman, a retired professor who’s become involved with the group Spokane Indivisible with a stated goal of opposing Trump’s agenda, and Karen Dorn Steele, a former Spokesman-Review staffer and current board member of the advocacy group Spokane Alliance.

Furman and Steele described the meeting as “polite, but pointed,” with 10 or so members of the public mostly voicing concern about the future of health care policy under a GOP-controlled Congress.

“I wanted to make sure that the protections of the Affordable Care Act would not go away,” said Furman.

Steele brought data from Washington state showing that counties who supported McMorris Rodgers, as well as Trump, had enrollment rates in public health plans exceeding 30 percent, with the exception of Whitman County, and as high as 50 percent in Adams County.

Both women said it appeared the congresswoman wanted to speak about specifics, and not the fundamental question of whether government should be involved in providing health care.

“I don’t think she wanted to talk about the big picture,” Furman said.

As McMorris Rodgers met in the small group, a group of about a dozen protesters mingled in the rain outside her office, holding their own “Coffee Without Cathy” event. The group Fuse Washington plans to host their own town hall Feb. 28, where messages will be recorded and sent to the congresswoman, said Jim Dawson, a program director with the group. Sam Smith, a second-year law student at Gonzaga University, also plans a “Constituent Town Hall” event Wednesday at the downtown library from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m.

“I’m holding this town hall because I’m disappointed she’s not showing up,” said Smith. “During this time in the congressional recess, and as an elected representative, it’s not acceptable to not hold a forum like this.”

Smith said he’s extended an invitation to McMorris Rodgers to attend, which would be the ideal outcome. He’s looking at a bigger venue for the event, based on the response on social media.

Patty Gates, another attendee of McMorris Rodgers’ small group meeting downtown Monday, said she was “outraged” the congresswoman hadn’t planned a town hall.

“This is important. I think this is really big for our congresswoman to refuse to meet with her constituents,” said Gates, who has attended multiple demonstrations outside the congresswoman’s downtown office as well as the women’s march last month.

McMorris Rodgers, who’d scheduled a telephone town hall Monday requiring participants to register, said in an interview that she’d held multiple events throughout the district and that it was important to meet with constituents in “collaborative and constructive ways.”

“I think hosting meetings in a way that allows for a dialogue, and allows for solutions to be discussed, is especially important right now,” McMorris Rodgers said.