Senator keeps on the narrow

Sen. John Ensign, in his first open forum with Southern Nevadans since he confessed to a sexual affair with a staffer last year, got a pass Wednesday from the public on his personal troubles during a carefully controlled town hall meeting on health care reform.

Not one person asked Ensign about the scandal during two back-to-back hearings in which he took pre-screened questions from Republican supporters and from Democrats, who were polite but pointed when they asked why he and his GOP colleagues oppose the health care overhaul bill.

The touchy topic of the affair wasn't far from voters' minds, however.

"I want to make sure he's on the right track,'' Diana Michael, a 68-year-old Ensign supporter, said when asked why she attended the meeting. "I think he made a big mistake and he's trying to recover from it. And it's time to move on."

The Democrats were hardly in a forgiving mood yet kept to the health care script in the meeting.

While speaking to a reporter, Karen Benzer asked, "If he can't even keep the (marriage) contract he made with the most precious thing in his life, how can you trust him?"

As for Ensign, he dismissed the issue as not-for-public consumption.

"I've made all the comments I'm going to make on that," he said when asked about the status of an ethics investigation related to the affair. "It is what it is."

A capacity crowd of 300 attended the first hourlong meeting at the Summerlin Library. Ensign agreed to hold a second hourlong session immediately after for 100 people who were left standing outside.

"This is a massive expansion of our federal government," Ensign said of the bill, which would require Americans to have health care coverage, end insurance company practices that deny people with pre-existing medical conditions and try to slow the growth of medical costs.

Benzer, a Democratic activist with who suffers from muscular dystrophy, confronted Ensign on pre-existing conditions. She asked him why he was one of only two senators who voted against a bill amendment that would prohibit insurance companies from denying coverage to people with autism, which her son has.

Ensign said at the time that if autism were included in the measure, people with diabetes would be next in line wanting automatic coverage.

Ensign told Benzer he is opposed to the federal government telling states what to do, a Republican position that appeals to conservative Nevadans.

The senator said the best way to achieve health care reform is to reduce "junk lawsuits" against doctors and hospitals and to encourage healthy behavior. He also said people should be allowed to buy health insurance across states lines to find cheaper policies.

Although about one-third of the 18 questioners Ensign faced seemed to be in the Democratic camp, most of the comments he fielded were straight from the GOP playbook.

Martin Shainen asked why Congress was rushing the health care overhaul measure, which passed the Senate 60-39 in a party-line vote held in an unusual late-night session on Christmas Eve.

"It's creating fear. It's creating anxiety. It's creating an urgency that isn't there," Shainen said.

Ensign replied: "I've made the same speech on the Senate floor."

Republicans have tried to delay the measure, a priority of President Barack Obama. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has led the effort to reconcile House and Senate versions of the bill so that Democrats can declare victory in this election year.

Democrats' efforts to win strong public support have failed. About 60 percent of Nevadans do not approve of Reid's efforts to pass health care reform, according to a recent poll commissioned by the Review-Journal. His disapproval rating has reached 52 percent.

The Democratic Party criticized the Ensign town hall in Las Vegas and a similar public hearing he held the day before in Reno, saying he took only pre-screened questions. Ensign said questions were chosen by his staff to cover a variety of issues. People were allowed to ask their own questions, giving them some room to speak freely.

"For the second time, Ensign dodged the tough questions and parroted Republican talking points," Phoebe Sweet, communications director for the state Democratic Party, said in a statement.

Ensign mentioned his wife, who has stood by him, twice during the town halls. He said he lived nearby and if the second meeting ended early, "I get to go home and see my wife and kids earlier."

During the first forum, he told a story about going to a sandwich shop and being asked by a worker to stop the health care bill. "My wife cooked dinner, and I picked up lunch," he explained.

Ensign has admitted a nine-month affair, from December 2007 to August 2008, with Cindy Hampton, a former staffer and the wife of Doug Hampton, an ex-Ensign aide. The Ensigns and Hamptons were close friends for years. Otherwise, Ensign has denied any unethical or illegal behavior.

In December, several former aides to Ensign were subpoenaed by the Senate Ethics Committee.

Doug Hampton left Ensign's employ at the end of April 2008. He has alleged that Ensign arranged for him to get work as a lobbyist for several Nevada firms and helped set up a meeting with Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, in violation of a federal law that requires a one-year "cooling off" period before top Senate aides can lobby.

The Senate panel's investigation could result in action from outright dismissal of the matter to a reprimand or a recommendation that the full Senate consider censure or expulsion.

Among Doug Hampton's accusations is that Ensign tried to buy his silence and that of his wife through a $96,000 payment from the senator's parents as the couple were leaving Ensign's employ. The payment was structured for tax purposes, and Ensign's attorney has said it was a gift.

Sources said there are signs that the Justice Department might get involved in the Ensign case, but it is not clear whether federal investigators plan a full-scale criminal probe.

Contact Laura Myers at or 702-387-2919.