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April 30, 2013 | 03:43 PMELKHORN — "We used to set up four rows of chairs," his press secretary said. "That was a long time ago."
A looong time ago.
More than 150 people filled the Monte Carlo Room Tuesday — not counting the dozen or so policemen — to hear from Congressman and former vice presidential hopeful Paul Ryan.
It was a town hall meeting that's grown in size since the Janesville Republican hit the national spotlight.
Behind him, for most of the meeting, was a huge screen with a pie chart describing the federal budget. Ryan fielded a like number of questions from supportive and nonsupportive citizens. On the sequester: "It wasn't the preferred way," Ryan said. He said it was the Obama administration's idea and it was given wide latitude on how it was implemented. He pointed out that the government was functioning, "but it's on borrowed money," he said.
"There were smarter ways," Ryan said.
Gun control: Ryan, a longtime NRA member, said he could support some forms of control including background checks at gun shows and allowing police to have access to information about the mentally ill. But he said the recently defeated gun bill "went too far" and was "a slippery slope" to overly broad legislation.
Taxes: He expressed optimism that progress in tax reform could be made sooner than later. Ryan had reservations about the fair tax idea based, in part, on the length of time it would take to implement. The fair tax is based on the idea of a national sales tax to replace the income tax, but Ryan feared that the country might end up with a dual tax because the income tax couldn't be eliminated in a timely manner. Ryan said that if holes were plugged in the income tax system, further increases in the actual rate could be avoided.
Affordable Care Act: "I didn't support Obama," Ryan said more than once. "There were three ways to defeat Obamacare," he added — the Supreme Court ruling against it, the GOP winning the presidency and "collapsing under its own weight." Since the first options failed, he predicted the nation will be left with the third.
Ryan cautioned people several times not to interrupt. "It's not polite," he said.
But the only heated moment came when a woman expressed concerns about what she viewed as the elimination of Social Security cost-of-living increases.
Ryan told her that such increases hadn't been eliminated, but that they were based on a formula which was tied to the economy which has gone through some deflationary periods lately.
"Do you know how much food costs these days?" the woman asked. "Have you gone to the grocery store lately?"
Ryan said he had.
After the meeting, Ryan answered individual questions and posed briefly for photos, but had to hurry off to what promised to be another full house town meeting — in Burlington.
On the way to his car, he gave the Regional News a short interview.
Question: How have things changed since the election?
Ryan: "A lot more people recognize me."
Q: What happened to the days when both parties got together over a drink to work things out?
Ryan: "It was never like that when I was there. Maybe a long, long time ago."
Q: A lot has been made of the need to reinvent the GOP after the last election, Your thoughts?
Ryan: "I don't think it's a matter of reinventing. We need to broaden our appeal, while maintaining our principles."
His feeling was that the Democrats have become more "liberal and progressive" over the years, but that bipartisanship is still possible with centrists on the other side of the aisle.
Will you run again — this time for the big one?
His press secretary smiled, too, and said, "On that note ..."
"Too early," Ryan said. "It's too early."