U.S. Senator John McCain fervently called for a federal balanced budget amendment as he blasted deficit spending and the bank rescue bill he once voted to approve while fielding nearly three hours of questions from about 500 people crowded into the Payson High School auditorium Saturday morning.
“It’s just outrageous,” said McCain of the 20 percent jump in federal spending that has included a $700 billion bank bailout bill, a $25 billion bailout of the auto industry and a $787 billion economic stimulus package. “Unless we do something radically different, there’s no way we will ever have a balanced budget.”
McCain seemed to thrive on the all-morning question and answer format, his humor, gritty grasp of details and self-mocking charm all on prominent display for what he described as his longest town hall ever.
In the course of the genial, unscripted ramble through a host of national issues, he took a break to joke with Payson’s championship wrestling team, posed with the newly formed Payson Youth Council and gently teased several questioners.
The event vividly demonstrated the enormous advantages of incumbency and the contacts developed in his 30 years in Washington, including 24 years as Arizona’s senator.
Three members of the Star Valley council, four members of the Payson council, Gila County Supervisor Tommie Martin and a broad cross section of the Rim Country leadership all attended. Perhaps surprisingly, high school students accounted for more than one-third of the audience. This seemed to delight McCain and at one point he asked everyone under 18 to stand up for a round of applause.
McCain faces a challenge in the Republican primary from former Phoenix congressman and radio talk show host J.D. Hayworth, who announced his campaign at a meeting in Payson earlier this week.
Hayworth blasted McCain for not being conservative enough, as evidenced by his support of immigration reform and his vote for the Troubled Asset Recovery Program (TARP), which economists credit with preventing a collapse of the global credit markets.
As it happens, the most visible Democratic candidate for the senate also made appearances in Payson on Friday and Saturday. Tucson Vice Mayor Ron Glassman castigated the four-term incumbent and 2008 Republican presidential candidate for not doing enough for Arizona as he pursued his national ambitions. Glassman talked to about 30 Democrats just before McCain’s town hall extravaganza kicked off.
However, McCain barely mentioned any of his potential opponents during his wide ranging question and answer session.
He took one dig at Hayworth, in responding to a question about porkbarrel spending. McCain has made a career of opposing “earmarks,” funding for local projects stuck into unrelated bills to win key votes.
Hayworth, in his appearance in Payson, lashed out at McCain for supporting some $150 billion worth of earmark-like projects in the federal economic stimulus bill, saying while he campaigns as a conservative he votes like a liberal.
McCain said the federal government “is spending like a drunken sailor and the bar’s still open,” and called attention to his sometimes lonely fight against federal earmarks.
He made a brief reference to Hayworth’s stint in Congress, before his defeat by Rep. Harry Mitchell, the former mayor of Tempe. McCain said he had led the investigations into the illegal bundling of campaign contributions by lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who in 2006 pled guilty to three felony charges involving defrauding Indian tribes and corruption of public officials. The investigations led eventually to corruption convictions involving one congressman and two White House officials.
“I’ll put my record against anybody as far as going after porkbarrel spending,” said McCain. “Mr. Hayworth, before he was thrown out (of Congress), was heavily involved with Mr. Abramoff.”
The deficit and health care dominated the discussion, with almost no questions at all from the audience about Iraq, Afghanistan, energy policy or even immigration reform.
McCain repeatedly urged the audience to bury Congress with opposition to an overhaul of the health care system backed by President Barack Obama.
McCain said he’s proud that he played a leading role in opposing health care reform and hailed a reversal in public opinion polls that has seen wide support for the Democratic proposal turn into growing opposition.
A Feb. 17 Newsweek poll, with a 4 percent margin of error, found 40 percent of Americans favor the health care reform plan favored by President Obama, including 15 percent of Republicans and 26 percent of Independents. The poll found majorities who opposed imposing a tax on expensive plans and fining people without insurance. Providing a government funded plan to compete with private plans got the support of half of the people polled.
McCain said that erosion of support for health care reform ideas championed by President Obama represents a major victory for Republicans.
McCain said Republicans favor reforms like limits on medical malpractice lawsuits, medical savings accounts, making health care costs deductible and letting insurance companies sell policies across state lines. He said the Democrats have falsely suggested all the Republicans do is oppose solutions.
“They were able to convince a lot of people we’re a party of ‘No.’ But our ‘No’ was to a $2.5 trillion debt on the backs of the American people,” he concluded.
McCain said he vigorously opposed “Obama care” because it doesn’t do enough to control a rise in the cost of health care and because he believes it’s unconstitutional to require people to buy medical insurance. He also strongly opposed the various special deals cut in the bill to gain the votes of enough Democratic senators to get the 60 votes needed to avoid a Republican filibuster.
“I don’t believe we should force every American to have health care. I do believe we should ensure we have available and affordable health insurance. The reason this fight is so fierce between we and the liberals is we believe the issue is cost — we have to preserve the quality and get the cost down. We’re not saying we want to do nothing — we’re saying we want to start over.”
He decried the “unsavory sausage making” that involved side deals with holdout Democrats from Louisiana and Nebraska, which he derided as the “cornhusker kickback” and the “Louisiana Purchase.”