Congressman defends right flank at town hall meeting in Oxford
by Tim Lockette
Aug 16, 2013 | 5438 views |  0 comments | 73 73 recommendations | email to a friend | print
U.S. Congressman Mike Rogers speaks to a crowd during a meeting at the Oxford Civic Center Friday. Photo by Stephen Gross.
U.S. Congressman Mike Rogers speaks to a crowd during a meeting at the Oxford Civic Center Friday. Photo by Stephen Gross.
OXFORD – Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Saks, said Friday he won't support a plan by some congressional Republicans to shut down the federal government in order to stop the implementation of the Affordable Care Act.

That is, unless Congress can find a way to do a federal shutdown and still give paychecks to soldiers in Afghanistan.

"If you shut down the government, it shuts down their pay," Rogers said.

Rogers spoke to a crowd of about 100 local residents in a mid-afternoon town hall meeting at the Oxford Civic Center.

Rogers and other members of Congress are in their August recess, and many of them are traveling their districts to feel out public opinion on the issues legislators left unresolved when they left Washington on Aug. 2.

In Oxford, at least, the listening tour presented Rogers with a rare opportunity to defend his right flank. The crowd in Oxford was overwhelmingly white – in a district where race and political party often go hand in hand – and the congressman garnered applause for remarks criticizing President Obama, the press and the United Nations. But Rogers also found himself at odds, on some issues, with those in his political base.

Chief among those issues was the call for a shutdown of the federal government to block implementation of the Affordable Care Act, popularly known as Obamacare. Some congressional Republicans have called for the House to block the approval of a spending resolution before the beginning of the fiscal year, effectively forcing the government to shut down all but the most essential services Oct. 1. Critics of the Affordable Care Act say that would stop the implementation of statewide health care exchanges, one aspect of the Affordable Care Act that's expected to take effect in the fall.

Rogers stressed that he feels no love for the president's health care reform.

"I have voted to defund Obamacare 40 times in the past two years," he said.

Still, he said he wouldn't approve a shutdown without a provision protecting soldiers' pay. The military has been funded in past shutdowns – it's regarded as an essential service – but Rogers said paychecks for soldiers in the field would likely stop if a shutdown happened.

Some in the audience pressed Rogers to support the shutdown anyway.

"Why would it not be President Obama's fault?" asked one audience member. Another said soldiers' pay would only be delayed, not lost altogether.

Rogers responded that he wanted soldiers to get paid – and that the press would blame Congress for the shutdown no matter who was at fault.

Other issues

Rogers told the audience that he wouldn't approve a new farm bill unless food stamps took a $20 billion cut. He said the automatic budget cuts known as sequestration took too big a bite out of the military without touching Medicaid, Medicare and Social Security – and he said he hoped legislation next year would "spread the pain." He criticized the Obama administration's handling of last year’s attack in Benghazi and held out the possibility of Congressional action on the matter.

Still, Rogers occasionally found himself on the defensive. One man rose to say he'd repeatedly asked Rogers to help him with a Veterans Administration claim. The man said the VA set him up with a Muslim doctor, and he wanted a doctor who was a Christian.

"Most doctors don't care about whether you're a Christian," Rogers said.

When the man pressed the issue, Rogers replied: "I don't ask doctors about their religion."

Others in the crowd asked Rogers about Internet-based rumors that the Department of Homeland Security had bought up millions of rounds of ammunition in order to keep the shells out of the hands of civilians.

"We've investigated that," Rogers replied. "It's not happening."

Several in the audience asked the congressman why stores seemed to be running out of guns. Rogers said worries about possible anti-gun legislation have simply driven demand up. He said he wished he'd bought a pawn shop before the gun-ban talk started.

"These people have made a killing selling semi-automatic weapons," he said.

Others asked about the potential for guns to be limited in the U.S. under a recent United Nations treaty on small arms. Rogers said the treaty wouldn't affect American gun owners.

"The UN has no power over us," he said. "They can pass whatever they want and it has no effect on us."

Rogers went on to criticize the UN as "useless and worthless" and said the U.S. shouldn't give money to the organization or host its headquarters — remarks that won applause from the crowd.

Audience members also asked why the U.S. was giving military funding to Egypt. Rogers said that without the money, Egypt would turn to other Middle Eastern allies for more aid, and could wind up abandoning its peace treaty with Israel.

"If you think we're not going to pay more than $1.3 billion to protect Israel, you're not paying attention," he said.

One audience member asked Rogers what he thought of Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor who leaked details of civilian surveillance to the press.

"He's a traitor," Rogers said.

"How about whistleblower?" the audience member asked.

"No, he's a traitor," Rogers replied.

Local concerns

Some visitors to the meeting came with more local needs in mind. Talladega residents Archie Wesley and Kay Buchanan, who were among the handful of African-Americans in the audience, brought photos of Harmon Cemetery, a crumbling historic graveyard in rural Talladega County. They said they were looking for assistance in getting the cemetery fixed up.

"We came to a higher echelon to seek help," Buchanan said. Neither Buchanan nor Wesley spoke at the meeting, but they did consult with Rogers' aides afterward.

Everett Pollard of Golden Springs came to ask how Obamacare would affect his own health care as a retiree from Anniston Army Depot. A Vietnam veteran who has been retired for 10 years, Pollard said he can't afford to see his own contribution to his health care plan go up.

"It's hard when you're retired," he said. "Just going to Walmart and buying something? 'That'll be $108 dollars.' Sheesh."

Pollard said he wanted Rogers' opinion because Congress is also on the federal insurance plan. Rogers said he didn't know what would happen to his own health care plan when Obamacare kicks in.

Alexandria resident Douglas Cooper said he considered Rogers to be mostly on his side.

"I like him OK," he said. "This is the first time I've heard him speak. I've seen him in Walmart a couple of times."

Clad in a tea party T-Shirt and an Air Force baseball cap, Cooper was on his last Friday off work. Unemployed for a year, he said he starts a new job selling cars in Gadsden on Monday.

But Cooper's questions weren't about the jobs situation. He said he was concerned about immigration, and about reports he'd heard on Fox News about a plan to scrap some of America's tanks and mine-proof personnel carriers. It doesn't make sense, he said, to spend millions on weapons and then destroy them.

"This is why we're in debt," he said.

Capitol & statewide correspondent Tim Lockette: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.

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