Thanks to Republican missteps and increased civic engagement from Democrats, the more damaging aspects of President Donald Trump’s agenda have been avoided so far, according to U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz.

Blowback from Democrats and internal dissension among Republicans caused their benefits-slashing alternative to the Affordable Care Act to crater, Schatz told a friendly and engaged crowd of about 400 at a town hall meeting in Honolulu on Monday.

He also said draconian plans for tax reform appear to have been tabled for a year or so. Meanwhile, Schatz said the budget hawks appear to be yielding under public pressure toward providing more stable spending for government operations and social services.

Senator Brian Schatz town meeting Mamiya Theatre gesture. 17 april 2017
At a crowded town hall meeting, Sen. Brian Schatz shared his thoughts with his constituents on the news from Washington. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

“There’s a possibility we will be in a better budget place than we could have reasonably assumed,” he said.

In addition, the State Department appears likely to be fully funded, a dramatic reversal from budget cuts of about 30 percent proposed by Trump, Schatz said.

The credit goes to a watchful public, Schatz said, referring to the “unprecedented citizen engagement” caused by Trump’s upset victory in November.

“By a factor of three, by a factor of 30, more people are engaged in dealing with Congress than ever before in U.S. history,” Schatz said.

Calls to the Capitol Hill switchboard hit record levels day after day, he said, particularly in response to the nominations of controversial Cabinet picks Betsy DeVos for secretary of education and Jeff Sessions as attorney general.

That response “actually has made a difference,” Schatz said.

In response to questions from the audience, Schatz said the U.S. government’s intervention in Syria appears to be escalating and that the risk of a missile attack by North Korea appears to be increasing.

“We are totally capable of going into Syria and making a terrible situation worse,” Schatz said.

Attack By North Korea A Possibility

Schatz said there is a risk that North Korea could launch a missile attack on Hawaii.

“It is a serious matter,” he told the crowd. “We are worrying about it. I don’t think you should be worrying about it. Let us worry about it for you.”

But he believes North Korea would try to hit the mainland because it is a larger target and it would be easier for unsophisticated weapons to hit than small islands.

Senator Brian Schatz town meeting Mamiya Theatre crowds. 17 april 2017
Schatz’s town hall at Chaminade University drew a packed crowd of about 400 people. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The big turnout at Chaminade University — more than twice what the senator’s staff had predicted — is another example of the nation’s heightened public interest in politics and growing activism by Democratic party loyalists since Trump’s election.

Hundreds of people have attended similar town halls held by U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard on the Big Island, on Lanai and in Kailua in the past week.

U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa will hold a town meeting at St. Mary’s Church in Honolulu on Saturday. Sen. Mazie Hirono has announced she will hold two town halls in May.

At his town hall Monday, Schatz fielded dozens of questions on many issues, responded to questions on a wide range of topics, including the Federal Communication Commission’s threatened reversal on net neutrality, climate change, science funding and funding for Planned Parenthood.

The questions appeared to have been pre-selected, but seemed representative of the concerns of the audience. At the end of the event, Schatz received a standing ovation from most of the audience.

Schatz said his primary goals in Washington are fighting for level or increased funding for Hawaii’s schools, health care system and environmental needs; resisting the Trump agenda; and working to find ways to reach across the aisle for a bipartisanship that will allow him to be more effective in achieving goals for the states.

Promoting Telehealth Programs

Some of his accomplishments, he said, may not capture headlines. That includes his effort to promote the expansion of telehealth, where people in rural areas or distant islands can access specialist care by video and internet instead of traveling long distances to visit a doctor.

He said he is focused on areas where “we have bipartisan support,” and he considered telehealth one of those areas.

He wavered a bit on a few responses. Responding to a questioner who said that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is the sole source of protection to religious minorities in the war-torn region, Schatz responded that Assad needs to go. He called Assad “unusually murderous,” but then said removing him could make a bad situation worse.

Schatz also found himself stumped by a question from a 24-year-old who described himself as pinched between low earnings, crippling student debt and the high cost of housing in Hawaii.

“I’m embarrassed for the Democrats that we haven’t been very serious” about finding ways to help solve the problems of young people who are financially struggling, Schatz said. “Your situation is quite terrible.”

When a member of the women’s group that calls itself the Windward Resisters asked him what they could do to help promote programs that support women, he struggled for specifics.

“That’s a serious question,” he said, saying that he would study the issue to see “what programs work better.”

He said that people should tell him about good ideas.

“The more you can bring things to my attention the more I can do for you,” he said.

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