By JAKE ZUCKERMAN
CHARLESTON, W.Va. — U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., pledged Thursday to a packed town hall in South Charleston that he would fight to stop a repeal of the Affordable Care Act.
Manchin spoke at LaBelle Theater at the citizen-organized event to a mostly liberal crowd, many of whom had a bone to pick with the self-described, most conservative Democrat in the Senate.
Though he took questions on hot-button issues ranging the political gamut, most focused on the pending repeal of the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, and replacement with the Republican-led American Health Care Act.
He said he believes the Affordable Care Act needs to be fixed, specifically when it comes to private markets, but repealing would devastate West Virginians, coal miners, the poor, older Americans, and other groups.
“If there’s one thing we all agree on, it’s that the Affordable Care Act, the way we have it now, needs to be repaired, not replaced or repealed,” he said.
While many attendees voiced their support with his take on Obamacare, speakers turned up the heat on Manchin by asking about his confirmation votes of Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt. They kept the pressure up on questions about whether transgender students should have the right to use whichever bathroom they choose in public schools.
Regarding Sessions, Manchin said when he served on the Senate with Sessions, he never saw any inklings of racism or mean-spiritedness, despite their disagreements.
In reference to both Sessions and Pruitt, he said he did not want to get in the way of an administration, and to let President Donald Trump set up the administration he desires. He did not address the Trump appointees he voted against: Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney.
However, Manchin said his ability to work with Republicans has given him credibility with the majority party, including urging Sessions to step aside on the Congressional investigations regarding Russia’s influence on the presidential election.
This side-step could be pivotal in light of soon-to-be released information, Manchin said.
“We’re going to get Trump’s tax returns, they will come out sooner or later, I assure you,” he said. “I can tell you this, the Russians did more to be involved and distort our elections than ever in the history of this country.”
Regarding transgender peoples’ rights to use the bathroom of the gender they identify with, Manchin said though he is open to helping individual constituents work out issues in their respective schools, he does not support blanket federal legislation, and said they should leave it to the states to decide.
Keeping the throttle up, several speakers pressed Manchin on whether he’d support either recreational or medical marijuana.
Talking recreational marijuana, Manchin said he would not support any legislation proposing as much, citing the controversial gateway drug theory.
However, he said he does not know as much as he should about the potential health and societal benefits of medicinal marijuana, and promised to several fiery speakers he would do his homework.
“I’m open to medical use,” he said. “I need to learn more, I really do.”
Manchin also shared his opinion on Trump’s appointee to the U.S. Supreme Court, Neil Gorsuch. He said he won’t make up his mind until the hearings, although he came out in opposition of “the nuclear option,” a parliamentary procedure that allows the majority party to side step the supermajority (60 votes) needed for a confirmation.
Other issues Manchin touched on include his ties to — and votes supporting — the coal industry, his opposition to Trump’s two executive orders blocking immigration from seven (six in the second version) Muslim-majority countries, and the budget Trump proposed Thursday (he said his staff needs time to review it).
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