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Thousands question Toomey about DeVos, Obamacare, Trump's travel ban

| Thursday, Feb. 16, 2017, 5:36 p.m.
A screen shot from Pennsylvania U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey's telephone 'town hall' on Thursday.

More than 15,000 people participated in an audio town hall meeting Thursday that U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey announced about 90 minutes before it began.

Toomey, a Republican from the Lehigh Valley, has drawn criticism in recent weeks for not being accessible enough to constituents. Some have complained about not being able to get through to Toomey's office or to leave messages for him on the phone.

"There have been an awful lot of busy signals," Toomey conceded during the town hall.

Toomey attributed the problem to "usually high call volume" from constituents with genuine concerns and people across the country who are "trying to make it impossible to get through" by conducting "organized, orchestrated efforts to block our phone system."

Toomey spokesman Steve Kelly said calls, emails and faxes to Toomey "are up at least ten-fold in all seven Pennsylvania offices and the Washington, D.C., office."

"We are doing our best to keep up with an unusually high call volume," Toomey said.

Thursday's town hall was held by phone and online.

Q&A with Toomey begins at the 11:02 mark.

A vendor for Toomey's office randomly called about 100,000 phone numbers across the state to attract participants. Several of them were able to pose questions directly to Toomey.

People listening online could submit questions in writing. Toomey's staff also monitored questions posted to Toomey's Facebook page, through which Toomey's office publicly announced the town hall.

Within an hour, more than 250 people had posted comments to the Facebook account — many complaining about the late notice or that Toomey wasn't holding in-person town hall events across the state. The complaints continued to pour in during and after the town hall. About an hour after the call ended, more than 4,500 comments accompanied the town hall announcement.

Toomey spokesman Steve Kelly said no in-person town halls are scheduled. Toomey participated in 14 such events during his first term, typically during the summer months, along with 47 previous telephone town halls over the past three years.

As for the late notice, Kelly said, "We were able to clear the time on the senator's schedule, so that's why there was the late notice. ... We needed to make sure that the schedule held up."

That didn't hold water with many constituents.

"Announcing it a little over an hour before it began in the middle of a workday makes it difficult for people to have access to it," said Jill Helbling, a co-organizer of the Pittsburgh chapter of a group dubbed "Tuesdays with Toomey," which has held protests for the past six weeks outside Toomey's Station Square office.

While one questioner during the town hall told Toomey that she thought it was a "cop-out" that he held a telephone town hall instead of meeting with constituents in person, Toomey replied, "I think this is a very useful way to hear from a lot of people."

Toomey's town hall started about seven minutes late — beginning just as President Donald Trump's lengthy news conference wrapped up. Toomey spoke for a little more than 11 minutes, then answered 10 questions in just over a half-hour. Toomey said more than 8,000 people listened online and more than 7,500 listened by phone.

Callers asked Toomey to explain his support for the confirmation of Betsy DeVos as education secretary and for repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare.

"This has been a controversial nominee obviously," Toomey said of DeVos, before noting that DeVos "has spent decades of her life actively engaged in supporting a cause that I feel strongly about and I agree with ... of giving parents a choice in the education of their kids."

Toomey described Obamacare as "collapsing" but said, "We are going to try to stabilize the current market for current people participating in it for two to three years to give us time to implement the reforms. ... We are not going to pull the rug out from under anyone."

Regarding retired Army Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn's firing as national security adviser and allegations that Flynn inaccurately portrayed his conversations with the Russian ambassador to administration officials, Toomey said, "I think that is a fireable offense."

And regarding Russia, in general, Toomey described President Vladimir Putin as a "very dangerous man" and said he is disappointed that Trump has not been "more openly critical" of the Russian leader. He also described Trump's travel ban as a "significantly flawed" executive order but agreed with the "fundamental idea that we need a tougher mechanism for vetting people who come from failed states where we have known terrorist activity or states that are extremely hostile to the United States like Iran."

Tom Fontaine is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7847 or tfontaine@tribweb.com.

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