Cotton, Hill take questions from scrappy crowd in Little Rock

Published 19 April 2017

U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton and U.S. Rep. French Hill faced an emotional crowd of 1,000 people Monday at a joint town-hall-style meeting in Little Rock where the two Republicans fielded questions about a range of issues, including President Donald Trump's decision to bomb a Syrian air base and the House's vote on health care.

Some audience members wore Trump hats, but they were outnumbered by the president's opponents -- many with T-shirts with the names of Planned Parenthood and Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America.

The meeting with the public -- like many held by Republicans around the country in recent months -- was filled with angry constituents.

Cotton elicited one rare moment of support throughout the banquet hall at the Embassy Suites hotel when he talked of sponsoring a bill with Democrats to help 9/11 first responders with their medical bills.

"We have serious divisions, and those divisions were on display last year during the campaign," Cotton said. "They remain on display because we have 325 million people in this country -- 3 million in Arkansas. Of course, there are going to be differences of opinion."

Hill, who often tells stories about the effects of government policies run amok, was shouted down several times by people who said he was not answering a question.

"I've worked in economic policy and in terrorism policy in the House [and] have found many partners on the Democratic side of the aisle. We have worked together. We've moved legislation together and we've passed legislation together," Hill said at one point. "The big challenge for all of us as, I think, as citizens, voters, taxpayers is solving some of the biggest challenges -- what we call comprehensive things."

Health care is one topic with which Congress needs to work across party lines, Hill said.

Cotton has hosted three in-person public meetings in less than two months. This was Hill's first such event in 2017. He held two similar meetings by telephone earlier in the year.

During Monday's meeting, questions hit regarding Trump's tax returns, Russian meddling in the November election, bombing in Syria, the failed bid to repeal and replace the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act and the passage of a bill to kill an online privacy regulation.

In response to the question about the president's tax returns, both Hill and Cotton said all federally elected officials have to file extensive financial disclosure forms.

[EMAIL UPDATES: Get free breaking news alerts, daily newsletters with top headlines delivered to your inbox]

Trump is the first president to withhold the documents in more than 40 years.

In response to a woman from Little Rock who asked Cotton if he would investigate Russian hacking as forcefully as he investigated the 2012 Benghazi attack, the senator said he would let the facts drive his conclusions.

"The intelligence I have seen is more sensitive than anything I've seen in over two years on the Intelligence Committee," he said. "That's just the nature of this work. I hope that we can make as many of our conclusions public as possible."

He added that he had no reason to doubt the intelligence community's conclusion that Russians hacked internal emails of Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign and leaked them before the November election.

Another Little Rock woman, who said her high school boyfriend was killed in Vietnam, asked Cotton and Hill what "you Republicans are going to do to try to control our crazy president."

Cotton said Trump made the right call by bombing Syria after a chemical-weapon attack on its citizens. In response to a later question, he said Congress could stop a war by defunding the military.

Many around the room started chanting "Arkansas" as Cotton explained that Trump was adopting "a peace through strength" foreign policy. Meanwhile, supporters of the senator, clustered directly in front of the stage, stood up and chanted "USA."

Hill said military preparedness will project "peace through strength" and that America needs to be leader to make the world a safer place.

The U.S. Constitution grants Congress the power to declare war but names the president commander in chief of the armed forces.

A Little Rock woman asked Cotton and Hill whether they supported repealing the Affordable Care Act, which she said would cost hundreds of thousands of Arkansans insurance coverage.

Cotton said he disagreed with the premise of the question but also with speed at which the House attempted to pass a plan last month.

"I have no doubt that some Arkansans have benefited from Obamacare," he said. "But there were a lot of problems with our health care system before Obamacare. It was too expensive, people with pre-existing conditions couldn't get coverage."

He added that more people have been hurt by Obamacare -- in the form of even higher premiums -- than were helped.

Hill, who had planned to vote in favor of the proposal, said, "People don't have the ability to even afford policies on the exchanges" and "the system began breaking down last year."

He said he wants a policy that benefits more people.

A Little Rock man asked -- as members of the audience yelled "you sold us out" -- why Cotton and Hill voted to undo an Internet privacy regulation.

Both emphasized that they wanted a fair playing field. Google and Facebook already track Internet use for people who use their services.

Hill asked who would oppose Internet privacy.

Many in the crowd responded: "You are."

"No, no, no, no," Hill said. "Then what we want is a Federal Trade Commission rule that regulates that privacy for both [Internet service providers] and Google and Facebook and all the other people who collect our information."

Cotton, in response to a different question, said disagreement is inevitable in a state like Arkansas.

"The best we can do is vote the way we promised during our campaigns -- what we think is in the best interest for Arkansas as a whole," he said. "If a majority of Arkansans disagree with us, then they can find someone else in 2018."

In interviews before Monday's meeting, both opponents and supporters of Hill and Cotton said they wanted things to change.

Amy Hawks of Little Rock sat near the front row and at times hoisted an "I stand with Planned Parenthood" sign.

"I want to talk about Planned Parenthood and cuts to women's health care and environmental regulations that have been cut," she said. "We're already seeing impacts from decreased environmental regulations, and that really needs to change if we're going to remain the Natural State.

"I want to know why Tom Cotton has voted for measures to defund Planned Parenthood. I want to know why he doesn't seem to feel that women's health care is important. And I want to know why cutting environmental regulations across the state is going to be a benefit."

Meanwhile, David Jones of Conway, who sat close to the elected officials at the center of the room, came to support the senator and congressman.

"I'm a concerned citizen. I'm from the old school of thought. I'm a conservative guy and I want to continue the conservative movement. I support them and I support President Trump. I think the country is turning around," Jones said.

"We've got to do something about the immigration issues, all these illegals, the real liberal group of people who think they can take over the country. We've got to get our arms around these issues, get back on track, get a lot of these people off of the Medicaid situation. You've got too many people that don't work."

Cotton was elected to the Senate in 2014 with 56.5 percent of the vote. Democrat Mark Pryor, the incumbent, received 39.5 percent of the vote.

Hill was re-elected in 2016 with 58.3 percent of the vote. Democratic challenger Dianne Curry received 36.8 percent of the vote. Chris Hayes, a Libertarian, received 4.7 percent of the vote.

A Section on 04/18/2017