RACINE — U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan, long-identified as the Congress’ budget and fiscal policy wonk, is deviating from the usual PowerPoint.
Influenced by the tide of national debate, the former Republican vice presidential candidate and longtime local congressman strayed from his traditional territory of taxes and budgets this week to preview the upcoming congressional battle on immigration reform and to address constituent questions on gun control, among other issues.
Ryan’s 1st congressional district includes all of Racine County. This is the first series of listening sessions since the congressman’s failed vice presidential bid and his eighth consecutive congressional victory in November.
Holding listening sessions Tuesday in Burlington and Wednesday in Racine, Ryan opened with his trademark PowerPoint slideshow presentation before answering constituent questions.
Ryan told reporters Wednesday that he wanted to reform the current immigration system “because it’s broken, not for any political reasons.”
Although some have touted immigration reform as a means for the GOP to win back Democrat-leaning Hispanic voters, Ryan said, “I don’t look at this as ‘we need to do a better job of playing identity politics’; we need to do a better job of just doing a good job, of good policies.”
To reach Hispanic voters, “Just treat people with respect. Just treat them like they’re any voter,” he said. “I don’t look at people as a certain identity. I don’t look at people as belonging to some group.”
During the listening sessions, Ryan emphasized that the changes he supports “are not amnesty.”
Reform should start by securing the border, enforcing existing laws through an “e-verify” identity database and creating a “workable, legal” system for future immigration, Ryan said. And all of that should happen before processing illegal immigrants through a probationary, earned legalization process, he said.
The bipartisan immigration reform package would grant citizenship to large numbers of people living illegally in the United States, but Republicans in the House are expected to resist the reform package despite Ryan’s support.
Particularly at Wednesday’s Racine session, gun control supporters spoke up, questioning their congressman’s lack of support for bills that would have expanded background checks and banned semi-automatic weapons and high-capacity magazines.
To each, Ryan pointedly prefaced his response by “agreeing to disagree” before sticking to his guns on the weapons ban, saying he believed his views match those of the majority of his constituents.
“These are legitimate weapons used for legitimate reasons,” including self-defense, target shooting and hunting, Ryan said.
On background checks, Ryan said he supported extending existing checks to online sales and gun shows, but opposed a failed Senate bill on the issue.
That bill had good ideas but overreached, and would have created a “slippery slope” to a federal gun registry, he said.
• Adoption for gay couples: Ryan previously voted against allowing gay couples to adopt, but he now says he’d support the measure, if it includes exemptions for religious adoption organizations who choose to opt out.
• Online sales tax: Having a brick-and-mortar store collect sales taxes when online competitors don’t is unfair, Ryan said. “I’d like to find a way to address that inequity without giving the government the power to expand taxing authority beyond that intent.”
• Closing Guantanamo Bay: “Guantanamo’s working. ... If (President Obama) has a different solution, I’d be curious to what it is. He hasn’t offered one.”
• Solvency of Obamacare: Ryan repeated past assertions that the national health care law would “collapse under its own weight,” but not before doing serious damage to under-reimbursed providers.
• Sequester: Ryan described the sequester, a series of automatic federal spending cuts, as unnecessarily painful. It constitutes “really ugly politics” played by President Barack Obama, Ryan said.
Local listening sessions
RACINE COUNTY — Congressman Paul Ryan’s Racine appearance Wednesday was part of an ongoing series of district listening sessions, including two in Racine County.
Ryan spoke Tuesday at Burlington’s Veterans Terrace, 589 Milwaukee Ave., and Wednesday at Racine’s Cesar Chavez Community Center, 2221 Douglas Ave.
Burlington saw a mostly supportive crowd of 116, while Racine’s was a smaller, but more vocal contingent of about 70.
Anticipating a larger crowd and a possible organized protest, the law enforcement presence was strong Wednesday, with more than 30 officers on hand.
Seeing the relatively small turnout, Racine Police Sgt. Jessie Metoyer said several sheriff’s deputies left early in the program. No officers on duty were paid overtime to man the event, she noted.
Ryan will be back in the district sometime this June or July, hosting a bilingual town hall focused on immigration reform.