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Toomey, criticized for accessibility by some, holds virtual town hall

It wasn’t the town hall that some of his critics have been demanding, but Sen. Pat Toomey spoke with constituents online and over the phones for more than 45 minutes this afternoon, a “tele-town hall” his office said was virtually attended by over 15,000 people.

Mr. Toomey opened by acknowledging “the difficulty many people have had getting on the phones” — a frequent complaint in recent weeks.

“We’ve had a very large volume of calls,” he said. “We don’t operate a call-center here.” And while Mr. Toomey said that many of the callers were “Pennsylvania citizens who have something on their mind,” there were also “organized, orchestrated efforts to block our phone systems.” And “the latter category, those whose goal it is to obstruct, are making it more difficult for the former category.”

He urged frustrated constituents to submit their thoughts online, via his website.

Mr. Toomey spoke for several minutes about the pace of things in Washington. While he criticized President Donald Trump, as he has before, on the poor roll-out of an executive order sharply limiting immigrants from several majority-Muslim nations, he said he agreed with Mr. Trump that “on the fundamental idea that we need a tougher mechanism from vetting people who come from failed states … or states that are extremely hostile to the United States, like Iran.”

On the Affordable Care Act, Mr. Toomey said, “Obamacare is in a free-fall. It has failed, it is failing badly.” But he said Republicans would ensure that existing plans would be unaffected for “at least two or three years” so as not to disrupt them “as we develop the reforms.”

Mr. Toomey offered few specifics about details like how Republicans would handle the health needs for those with chronic health conditions, though he later suggested that future changes would include tort reform and more competition across states.

Mr. Toomey took ten questions from callers in less than an hour. He spoke about the removal of former intelligence director Michael Flynn, who reportedly had spoken with Russian officials about U.S. sanctions prior to Mr. Trump’s inauguration

“My understanding is that General Flynn was not honest with Vice President [Mike] Pence about those conversations. … I think that is a fireable offense. I just don’t think a president and a vice president can have a senior adviser who’s not being completely honest with them.”

Mr. Toomey also offered mild criticism of Mr. Trump, whose frequent praise for Russia has caused concern in national-security circles. “I am disappointed that President Trump hasn’t been more openly critical of Vladimir Putin,” he said. But he added that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who as a former ExxonMobil CEO conducted business in Russia, is “under no illusions about the nature of the Russian regime.”

Mr. Toomey was also questioned about one of Mr. Trump’s cabinet picks, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, a controversial choice who needed Mr. Pence’s tie-breaking vote to be confirmed. Ms. DeVos, though a school-choice advocate, has no background in education and her performance during confirmation hearings was widely panned. Mr. Toomey acknowledged she had not been a teacher or school administrator, but “has spent decades of her life actively engaged in supporting a cause that I agree with” — school choice.

Mr. Toomey got some friendly callers, including a Pottstown resident who appeared to blame Philadelphia’s “sanctuary city” immigration policy on the fact that her community was "getting a lot of the not-so-nice population of the city” with a rise in crime.

But others griped about his inaccessibility. One Facebook comment he addressed said the telephone town hall “is not good enough,” and that “avoiding actual confrontation” at a physical town hall “is a cop out.”

Mr. Toomey, who said the calls were “not pre-screened,” said he thought the format was “very constructive, and I’m going to continue to communicate with people in many forums, and as best we can.”

That would be swell with Jennifer McDowell, who has been organizing “Tuesday with Toomey” protests outside Mr. Toomey’s Pittsburgh office.

The tele-town hall “is not a bad approach, as long as it isn’t the only one,” she said. Mr. Toomey, she added, should “speak to his constituents in a format where he doesn’t have total control. I understand that they don’t want to do that, but they need to hear from everybody.”

Ms. McDowell did say Mr. Toomey fielded “questions that weren’t all softballs. He handled the question about Russia pretty well. He clearly was not in lockstep with the Trump administration, and I appreciated that. But his answer about DeVos was terrible, and could have used more discussion. And not giving people advance notice was ridiculous.”

Indeed, the 2:05 p.m. conference was announced at lunchtime today: Mr. Toomey’s office said the opportunity arose when the Senate ended up not taking votes this afternoon. His office said he’s held 47 such gatherings in the previous three years.

But Ms. McDowell said such efforts would have no impact on future “Tuesday with Toomey” events, because questions couldn’t be asked on a range of topics like climate change. She also said it bothered her that Mr. Toomey blamed “organized efforts” for a lack of response. “It sounds like he thinks all these people were trying to obstruct him from doing his job,” she said. “He’s asking for trouble if he goes down that line.”

In any case, she said, “If anything, I think this is going to make people even more interested in being heard.”

Chris Potter: cpotter@post-gazette.com.