In telephone town hall, Gardner fields persistent questions about health care, Russia and environmental regulations

(Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

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Sen. Cory Gardner took direct questions from constituents on hot-button issues in a conference call Wednesday.

Many of the questions directly challenged Gardner and his positions on President Donald Trump and the Republican Party’s actions, but the furor seen at in-person town halls was blunted in part by the controlled environment and the fact that there was no opportunity for follow-up questions.

By the way – if you called in, we want to hear about your experience. Email me or call 303-502-2803.

Here’s what they asked about:

A woman named Marilyn asked whether he supported an independent investigation into Russian interference.

I have supported an investigation into Russia … I believe we ought to create a separate select cyber committee that will look into the Russian allegations,” Gardner said. (A “select committee” would be made up of elect members of Congress.) He noted the Federal Bureau of Investigation is conducting an investigation too.

“It’s unacceptable that the Russians tried to interfere with our elections, which we know they did,” Gardner added.

Andrew in Denver asked about Gardner’s stance on Planned Parenthood.

“I am pro-life and I don’t think there’s any doubt about that,” Gardner replied. He acknowledged that Planned Parenthood provides many health services beyond abortions, and said that he supports efforts to “take those dollars” and make them available to other providers.

The senator stood by his votes on Trump’s nominees for federal positions, such as Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

I think it’s important that the president have the people around him that the president nominates,” he said.

Gardner said he voted to bring Obama Attorney General Loretta Lynch to a floor vote as evidence he also supported Obama having the nominees he preferred, though Gardner voted against Lynch at the actual confirmation.

On Trump’s executive order barring refugees and residents of seven predominantly Muslim countries from the United States: “We spent a tremendous amount of time and resources in this office helping people around the globe get back to their homes in Colorado,” he said, adding that he objected to the order and the president’s “overreach.”

Answering a Boulder constituent’s question, he said that he is pressing the White House for more details on the administration’s plans to address legal marijuana.

“I had a long and lengthy visit with Jeff Sessions about his views … I believe he said that he would not make this a priority,” Gardner said, acknowledging that this seems to conflict with press secretary Sean Spicer’s promise of greater enforcement of federal law.

A constituent named Heather asked what Gardner would do to ensure people with preexisting conditions, such as her child, are able to keep their insurance if the Affordable Care Act is repealed. (She added that she was not paid to ask the question, a reference to Gardner’s early comments on “paid protesters.“)

Gardner didn’t directly address what a new insurance law would look like, but said this is a moment to get beyond the “partisan” debate of the last six years, and he said that the ACA had kicked people off their existing plans while driving up premiums.

“If we increase affordability, then we have access to the kind of healthcare that people with pre-existing conditions are fighting and striving for,” he said. He also said that he hadn’t “heard anyone say we’re going to get rid of pre-existing condition coverage,” and that much of the debate in Congress focuses on keeping that coverage.

In response to another question about why he’s not supporting an independent investigation into the connections between Russia and Trump and his associates, Gardner said he’s supported sanctions against Russia and investigations into interference with the election, but it’s too early to say whether an independent investigation is needed.

“This is an investigation that’s being carried out by the intel committee and the FBI right now, and I think it’s premature to talk about the attorney general’s office. I think it’s important to have our facts before any decisions are made,” he said.

Jane in Durango asked if Gardner would support his constituents in southwest Colorado and support enforcement of the methane rule. This is a reference to an Interior Department rule modeled after one in Colorado that went into effect in the last days of the Obama administration. It requires oil and gas drillers to capture methane emissions instead of simply venting or burning them off. House Republicans voted to kill the rule earlier this month, but the Senate has yet to vote.

Gardner said he “continues to receive feedback” on this issue. “I have not taken a position,” he said.

A caller from Aurora who identified himself as a public affairs intern with the Borgen Project asked Gardner about Trump’s plans to significantly increase military spending and cut foreign aid. Foreign aid makes up less than one percent of the federal budget, though many Americans believe the number to be much higher. The caller cited Republicans like former Department of Homeland Security head Tom Ridge who said foreign aid advances American interests.

Gardner said he agreed and does not want to see foreign aid reduced. He cited aid to Israel but also electrification efforts bringing power to rural Africa and other economic development programs. He called foreign aid an “incredible way” to spread American values and reduce the need for military interventions in the long run.

“What we have to recognize is that diplomacy is far less expensive than military engagement,” he said.

At the same time, Gardner believes the military needs more money, in particular to replace aging equipment. (Obama had also called for more military spending, just not as much more as Trump.)

“If they don’t have the tools, if they’re robbing parts off an airplane to keep the other airplane running, then shame on us for not giving them the tools to defend themselves,” Gardner said.

Gardner had to cut the call short to go to a meeting with President Trump, but he said he would carry his constituents questions and concerns with him to that meeting.

He also encouraged people to keep calling and writing his offices, noting that his staff had recently installed a voicemail system that could accept an unlimited number of messages.

Erica Meltzer contributed to this report.