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Amash grilled by constituents in first town hall since controversial health care vote

Dustin Dwyer
Michigan Radio
Rep. Justin Amash takes questions from constituents in Grand Rapids.

Congressman Justin Amash faced more than two hours of harsh questioning from constituents at a town hall event in Grand Rapids last night.

It was Amash’s first town hall since his controversial vote in the U.S. House to support the Republican health care bill, known as the American Health Care Act or AHCA.

Hundreds of people showed up. Amash told them he saw serious problems with the AHCA. But he says he voted for it anyway because he thinks it would be an improvement over the current health care law.

"As a representative, I have to be an incrementalist," Amash said. "I can’t be waiting for the perfect piece of legislation because no such legislation exists."

Earlier this month, Amash wrote a long Facebook post explaining his vote, saying "This is not the bill we promised the American people." 

The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office estimates the AHCA would reduce the federal deficit by $119 billion and result in 23 million fewer people having health insurance. The bill is currently waiting on approval from the U.S. Senate. 

"Are you prepared to lose your seat because of this vote?" one woman asked.

Amash told the crowd in Grand Rapids that both political parties were overstating the bill's potential impacts. He said it only "tweaks" the current health care law. That claim was met with large boos. At least one person shouted "Liar!" back at Amash. 

A number of people at the town hall event told Amash they feared losing coverage if the AHCA becomes law.

One woman stood up and told Amash she's 17 years old and will vote for the first time in the 2018 elections. She said she'd thought she might vote for Amash, but not after he supported the AHCA. 

"Are you prepared to lose your seat because of this vote?" she asked.

"I vote the way I believe on everything," Amash responded.

Amash won his latest election with nearly 60% of the vote. A Democrat hasn't held the congressional seat that includes Grand Rapids since Richard Vander Veen left office in 1977. 

But Amash repeatedly insisted he does not see himself as a partisan. He cited an analysis that showed he votes against his own party more often than all but three fellow House Republicans. Amash also says he didn't vote for Donald Trump, and he's one of only a few Republicans who've called for a bipartisan congressional investigation into the Trump campaign's alleged contacts with Russian representatives. 

"The alternatives you're facing are Republicans or Democrats in office who just toe the party line on basically everything," Amash told the crowd. "But if that's what you want, you will get it. You will get it from someone else, not from me." 

Despite the harsh reception and frequent interruptions, Amash said he's committed to holding more town halls with constituents. He criticized other members of Congress for avoiding the often messy events. 

"You would not believe how many times people tell me, 'Justin, why do you do those town halls? Those people will never like you,'" he said. "Every week I go back to Congress they tell me that."

But Amash says he has no plans to stop holding the events. He has another town hall scheduled for 5:30 tonight in Battle Creek

Dustin Dwyer reports enterprise and long-form stories from Michigan Radio’s West Michigan bureau. He was a fellow in the class of 2018 at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard. He’s been with Michigan Radio since 2004, when he started as an intern in the newsroom.
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