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 where he took prescreened 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 reform bill.
The touchy topic 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.
“If he can’t even keep the (marriage) contract he made with the most precious thing in his life, how can you trust him?” Karen Benzer asked while speaking to a reporter.
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,” Ensign said when asked about the status of an ethics investigation related to his affair. “It is what it is.”
A capacity crowd of 300 attended the first hour-long meeting at the Summerlin Library. Ensign agreed to hold a second hour-long session immediately following for 100 people who were left standing outside.
“This is a massive expansion of our federal government,” Ensign said of the bill that 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 MoveOn.org who also suffers from muscular dystrophy, confronted Ensign on pre-existing conditions. She asked him why he was only one of 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 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 Ensign fielded were straight from the GOP playbook.
Martin Shainen asked why Congress was rushing the health care reform 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 top 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 Democrats can declare victory in this key election year.
So far, Democratic efforts to win strong public support have failed.
About 60 percent of Nevadans don’t 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 selected 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 Nevada State Democratic Party, said in a statement.
Ensign mentioned his wife, who has stood by him, twice during the town halls. Ensign 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 committee action ranging from outright dismissal of the matter to a reprimand or a recommendation that the full Senate consider censure or expulsion.
Among 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 was leaving Ensign’s employ. The payment was structured for tax purposes, and Ensign’s attorney says it was a gift.
Sources say there are signs that the Justice Department may get involved in the Ensign case, but it is not clear whether federal investigators plan a full-scale criminal probe.
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