SOUTH CHARLESTON, W.Va. – U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., addressed two packed town halls Thursday, with topics ranging from the future of health care to marijuana.
While attendees did not agree with Manchin on every subject, even showing their disagreement vocally, the senator said he was happy to participate in both events.
“They just want to be heard,” Manchin said. “You don’t have to agree, but you have to agree to be respectful. I think everybody was.”
The first town hall was Thursday morning at the Robert C. Byrd Sciences Center in Martinsburg, while the second was held that evening in South Charleston at the LaBelle Theatre.
Manchin’s office did not organize either town hall; West Virginians for Affordable Health Care organized the Martinsburg forum, while Rise Up West Virginia hosted the South Charleston event.
U.S. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., and Rep. Alex Mooney, R-W.W.Va., were invited to the events, but both declined.
Members of Rise Up West Virginia handed out postcards addressed to Capito and Mooney prior to the South Charleston event, requesting a town hall.
Jack Deskins, a member of that organization, said the town hall served as a way for constituents to learn about their lawmakers positions on current events.
“We wanted our congressional delegation to come and speak to issues that concern all of their citizens,” he said.
Manchin was originally scheduled to meet with NATO allies overseas.
In Martinsburg, the hot subject was the American Health Care Act, the Republican-backed proposal to replace former President Barack Obama’s health care law.
Kat Stoll, board member for WVAHC, said the proposal would put 600,000 West Virginians at risk for losing their health care coverage.
Manchin said he could not vote on the bill in its current state, adding he is willing to work with Republicans on fixing “Obamacare.”
“Sit down with us and work and see if we can repair the parts that we know need to be repaired,” Manchin said. “Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.”
The senator said in South Charleston he has heard the health care bill called “Trumpcare” and “Ryancare,” after President Donald Trump and Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, R-Wisc., respectively.
“We’ve renamed it, ‘Rumpcare,'” Manchin joked to audience.
The Congressional Budget Office released Monday estimates on the American Health Care Act, noting while the bill would reduce federal deficits by $337 billion by 2026, it would also increase the number of uninsured Americans to 24 million by that same year.
When asked about the bill’s chances, Manchin said lawmakers in the House of Representatives know “it’s probably dead on arrival” if it is introduced in the Senate.
More issues were discussed in South Charleston, including Trump’s released budget proposal. The budget includes $52 billion in increased defense spending and $2.6 billion for a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. However, spending across several agencies would be cut, as well as 19 agencies. This includes the Appalachian Regional Commission, an economic development body aimed at creating economic opportunities across 13 states, including West Virginia.
Manchin said while his staff is still reviewing what was proposed, he did not like what he has seen on it so far.
The senator also provided an update on the Miners Protection Act, a law that funds pensions and health care for retired miners, saying Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., is to blame for the delay of legislation. He did mention a proposal regarding funding health care benefits should be introduced by April.
“Before next month, we are going to get a permanent fix for our health care,” Manchin said.
There were tense exchanges during the South Charleston event about the legalization of marijuana. One speaker mentioned comments made Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who Manchin voted to confirm on Feb. 8.
Sessions said Wednesday the dependency people have on marijuana is “only slightly less awful” than the dependency on heroin.
Manchin said he did not support the recreational use of marijuana, adding he has talked to drug addicts, who have said marijuana was their gateway to other drugs. This statement was met with audience disapproval.
The theory that marijuana could lead people to try other substances is controversial, and has been discredited by research.
“Medical? I don’t know enough,” Manchin said. “Commercial? I don’t know enough. I’m willing to learn.”
The senator was also asked about Trump’s revised travel ban, which was blocked from taking effect by federal courts in Hawaii and Maryland.
Manchin said vetting needs to be in place, but he is against the executive order as it went against the idea of freedom of religion.
“That’s not what we do,” Manchin said.
Manchin will participate in a town hall Friday in Huntington. His final town hall this week is Saturday in Morgantown.
Hans Fogle contributed to this story.