Representative Lee Zeldin answered questions from several constituents in a “telephone town hall” last Thursday, following the cancellation of an April in-person event at the Rogers Memorial Library in Southampton.
The second-term Republican, who represents New York’s First Congressional District, spoke about topics including health care, particularly the Affordable Care Act, which he wants repealed; the rise in anti-Semitic acts across the country and President Donald Trump’s response to them; the president’s alleged conflicts of interest; national gun policy, and climate change. After the call, Mr. Zeldin’s communications director declined to reveal the results of several poll questions posed during it, including queries about his and the president’s performance and whether the country was on the right track.
The president has vowed to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, popularly known as Obamacare. Mr. Zeldin told listeners that he supported that goal, but offered scant details on a new policy beyond its continuing to require that those with pre-existing conditions be covered and that young people can stay on their parents’ health insurance until the age of 26.
“What is the plan that you have in place to replace it,” a caller asked, “and how will you pay for it?”
The repeal-and-replace plan, Mr. Zeldin said, is being vetted with Representative Tom Price, who was confirmed as Secretary of Health and Human Services on a party-line vote last month. Mr. Price, who has said he wants to see fundamental changes to Medicare and Medicaid, heads the president’s effort to dismantle the Affordable Care Act.
One-third of the counties in the United States offer only a single health insurance option under the exchanges established by the Affordable Care Act, and many who are insured under the act are saddled with very high deductibles, Mr. Zeldin said. Members of Congress, he said, are “lobbying for certain changes to help advocate for our own constituents. . . . We’re advocating in a very parochial way on behalf of New Yorkers and the New York State budget and the impact on health care in our state . . . because we don’t want to pull the rug out from anyone, it’s going to be important for H.H.S. to work with states, to be working with insurers, providers, getting feedback from the ground so that this is implemented as smoothly and effectively as possible.”
A pointed exchange came early in the call. “As an American and as a Jew,” a caller asked, “how do you condone Donald Trump’s belated condemnation of the rise of anti-Semitism that has been going on throughout his campaign and now through his presidency?” The caller was referring to numerous threats against Jewish community centers and places of worship, as well as the desecration of tombstones at Jewish cemeteries. Another such incident took place at a cemetery in Philadelphia last weekend.
Threats and desecration are “something that deserves the strongest condemnation,” Mr. Zeldin replied. Referring to Mr. Trump’s response to a question on anti-Semitic acts during his Feb. 16 press conference, in which the president apparently misunderstood the question and berated the journalist for asking it, the congressman said that “it was almost like he was answering a different question.” He was pleased, he said, that “a few days ago, he started to speak up more. I would strongly encourage him to do that.”
“Does he have to be embarrassed to speak out on such an important issue?” the caller asked. “He’s given a wink to the alt-right and their beliefs, and has not cast them aside. Instead, he’s welcomed them . . . into his close supporters and advisers.”
“Speaking out at those moments is a leadership opportunity,” Mr. Zeldin said, “not only to connect with the people who support you but others who maybe didn’t vote for you. . . . It’s going to be very important for him over the course of these coming days, weeks, months, years ahead to be able to learn some of these lessons from the early days of the administration, to be the best possible leader.”
On Monday, Mr. Zeldin released a statement condemning telephoned and emailed threats, including those recently received by Jewish community centers in Plainview and Staten Island. “There must be zero tolerance of any kind for this rising tide of anti-Semitism in the United States and abroad,” it said.
A caller asked about the Concealed Carry Reciprocity Act of 2017; Mr. Zeldin is one of its many co-sponsors. That proposed bill would compel states to recognize out-of-state permits allowing the concealed carry of handguns, overriding their own laws. It would also allow concealed handguns in school zones and on federally owned public lands.
“I’m just curious how this is possibly something you could support,” the caller said.
Mr. Zeldin referred to his opposition to the New York Secure Ammunition and Firearms Enforcement Act of 2013, known as the NY SAFE Act, which he said improperly labeled certain firearms as assault weapons because a feature, such as a flash suppressor or a thumb grip, had been added to it and consequently “it looked scary.” Existing laws are not enforced, he said, “so it’s not just about creating a new law that might feel good, or might sound good.”
Noting that Mr. Zeldin is on the bipartisan Climate Solutions Caucus, another caller asked about that body’s direction. “We all want clean air and clean water,” Mr. Zeldin replied, but he called the issue “a highly charged political debate.”
He supports the Peconic Estuary Program, a management plan involving government, business, and citizen and environmental groups, he said, and is co-chairman of the Congressional Long Island Sound Caucus. “I want to get past a partisan political debate and pursue solutions that can allow us to achieve” clean air and water, he said.
However, in response to another question, Mr. Zeldin acknowledged that he had voted with the majority to repeal the Stream Protection Rule, implemented in the waning days of President Barack Obama’s administration, which regulated coal-mining operations to avoid or minimize impacts on surface and groundwater as well as wildlife. “I don’t believe that the administration and the executive agencies should be passing rules that are eliminating an entire sector, an entire way of life, for people who live in different states” such as West Virginia, he said.
Asked if he would support legislation requiring presidents to release their tax returns and divest themselves of their assets or place them in a blind trust, Mr. Zeldin instead criticized Democratic legislators for introducing such proposals. Some of them, he said, “can’t wait to try to impeach the president,” which “is just not something that I relate to.”
Investigating potential conflicts of interest is a matter for the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, he said.