By Michael Bodine
Capital News Service
RICHMOND – U.S. Sen. Mark Warner discussed national and state issues at a town hall meeting with students and faculty at Virginia Commonwealth University last week – without even leaving his Washington office.
After an introduction by Dr. Niraj Verma, director of VCU’s L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs, Warner appeared on a projector screen in the Student Commons Theater.
Skyping in for an hour from Capitol Hill, the Democratic senator addressed topics ranging from the national deficit to state legislation requiring women in Virginia to get an ultrasound before having an abortion.
In his opening remarks, Warner humorously acknowledged Congress’ low approval rating.
“Most Americans – and probably most of you – are pretty upset with Congress,” he said. “It’s a little bit dysfunctional at this point, and in the three brief years that I’ve been here, I have been seeing if there are ways we can change that.”
Warner’s primary concern was the multitrillion-dollar federal deficit. From the theater’s video monitor, he discussed his efforts to craft a bipartisan strategy that would ratchet down federal spending and raise revenues.
This would allow Congress to focus on issues such as education, infrastructure and energy, said Warner, a member of the “Gang of Six” – a group of Republicans and Democrats working on the budget problem.
“All these other issues are held up if we can’t pay our current bills,” he said.
After about 10 minutes of opening remarks, Warner opened the floor to questions. Students lined up at the microphone to direct their questions at the giant projector screen.
Many of the concerns students had involved social issues, such as abortion rights and the right of gay people to adopt children.
A young woman asked Warner what should be done to reverse legislation that would undermine abortion rights. The senator instructed the student to turn around and face the audience. After the woman bashfully turned, Warner commanded her to tell the audience members to register to vote.
The audience chuckled as Warner explained, “I’ve got my job to do, and you’ve got your job to do as well. We ought to be a state that’s viewed as progressive, that’s not focusing just on the social hot-button issues that tear us apart.”
Warner also addressed students’ questions on criminal justice reform, school safety, Iran’s pursuit of nuclear technology and health care.
With any big legislation, Warner said, Congress evaluates its progress about two years after it has been enacted. He said that while the national health care reform package is far from perfect, too many critics want to repeal it entirely. Warner believes that the health care law needs some tweaks but that it is an important measure for the United States to have.
“It’s not just morally the right thing to do; it’s economically the right thing to do,” said Warner, who served as governor from 2002 to 2006.
As governor, Warner started the Virginia Health Care Foundation. He said the initiative has provided about 1 million Virginians with better health care.
Warner denounced members of Congress who want to repeal the current health care package.
“The very people who say, ’No compromise,’ who say they want to defend the Constitution – well, that’s not the Constitution I took an oath of office to,” Warner said. “You’ve got to put the country’s interest first. That means you’ve got to find common ground on things like affordable care.”
Warner wrapped up Tuesday’s discussion by saying he had another meeting to attend. But before powering down the camera and signing off, he offered a closing comment with which all members of the audience could agree: