LYONS — For nearly two hours Wednesday evening, U.S. Rep. John Katko answered questions about veterans issues — and more — at his first public forum of the year.
The first hour of the listening session, which was held at the Wayne County Public Safety Building in Lyons, focused on veteran-related topics. Many of the questions asked Katko, R-Camillus, and panelists who joined him for the discussion about services available to veterans. Katko and his staff offered to assist veterans navigate the bureaucracy.
It was the last hour that Katko did what he has been accused of not doing: Take questions, in an open forum, on any topic.
He was peppered with questions about his health care stance and, specifically, whether he supports Medicare for all. Some Democrats have endorsed establishing a Medicare-for-all system, a form of single-payer health insurance. Among those supporting this proposal is Dana Balter, Katko's Democratic opponent in the 24th Congressional District race.
Katko referred to a report published by the Mercatus Center, a George Mason University think tank, that found health expenditures would decrease, but federal spending would need to double to pay for the program.
While taxes would rise, proponents say taxpayers would save money because their health expenses would decrease. But Katko isn't convinced. He worries that it would have an adverse impact on the economy.
"I've met with people who are very much for the Medicare for all. I've been learning from them and they've been learning from me," he said. "But there's some long-term concerns I have about it that have not been answered."
Katko reiterated his support of Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into Russia's meddling in the 2016 election. A question about the investigation came one day after the conviction of Paul Manafort, President Donald Trump's former campaign chairman.
When asked if he would support impeaching Trump if Mueller's investigation found wrongdoing on his part, Katko fell short of pledging to vote one way or another. He called engaging in speculation "dangerous," but added that he will "abide by the facts wherever they lead us."
"I'm not saying he's innocent," he said. "I'm not saying he's guilty."
Throughout the second hour, there were questions raised by those in attendance about whether Katko has stood up to Trump. Trump, like Katko, is a Republican.
At one point, Katko grabbed a few pieces of paper he had sitting in front of him and read what he viewed as examples of him standing up to Trump. There were at least three pages of examples he mentioned, the most recent example being a statement he released criticizing Trump for praising Russian President Vladimir Putin at a summit in Finland.
"I have a track record of standing against him," he insisted.
Katko also addressed the ongoing immigration debate and shared his account of a failed effort to pass a comprehensive bill. He played a role in drafting a legislation he believed would appeal to both parties. It included a provision to protect 1.8 million "Dreamers" — individuals who were brought to the U.S. illegally as children — and provide a pathway to citizenship.
The legislation contained other provisions, such as funding for a border wall — one of Trump's top priorities — and border security measures.
When the bill came to the House floor for a vote, it failed by a wide margin. Only 121 Republicans supported the legislation. Half of the GOP joined the Democratic caucus in voting against the plan.
Katko blamed Democrats for not putting aside their differences about the border wall to support a bill he believes would help Dreamers. He also blasted GOP members who voted against it and criticized Trump for sending mixed messages.
"We could've put this issue behind us," he said.
The forum concluded with multiple attendees asking Katko to hold an open town hall meeting. Wednesday's session was his 10th forum since joining Congress in 2015. He has mostly scheduled issue-specific forums to discuss agriculture, the drug crisis and other subjects.
Last year, he participated in a televised town hall meeting at Onondaga Community College.
Katko said he plans to hold a forum in the next week or two in Cayuga County. He didn't reveal the date or location.
"I will continue to make myself available," he said. "You have my word on that."