The town meeting that Rep. Tom Reed held Saturday didn't take long to focus on the crux of the current debate in Congress over federal spending.
"Why did you vote for the Ryan budget?" asked Brian, an Olean resident concerned about a plan that would issue vouchers to senior citizens, replacing Medicare to drastically trim federal spending and the national deficit.
But that critical question at the outset of a gathering of about 20 Southern Tier constituents in the Walsh Science Center at St. Bonaventure University failed to deter Reed, a Corning Republican, in the slightest. He launched into a resolute defense of the GOP plan championed by his freshman class in the House of Representatives and Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., ratcheting up his familiar warning that the nation's level of spending is unsustainable and even a threat to national security.
"Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has told our president that the biggest threat to our national security is not from some outside force, but from the national debt," he said. "That should send volumes of warning to each and every one of us. I know it does to me."
Reed, the former Corning mayor who was elected in last year's GOP landslide, is the only member of Congress from Western New York who conducts town meetings and has done so on a torrid pace since taking office. Saturday, he convened two other gatherings -- in Caton in Steuben County and Wellsville in Allegany County -- each time employing his easygoing style to highlight his now-familiar set of graphs and charts showing the nation veering off its fiscal course.
While he encountered some questions about soaring gasoline prices and even his relationship with President Obama ("I've met him, but I don't think he knows who the heck I am"), spending seemed to dominate the Saturday session.
Indeed, national news reports indicate some Republican members of Congress are encountering stinging criticism in similar settings around the country as constituents come to grips with the proposal for major overhauls of Medicare, Medicaid and other programs. A Washington Post/ABC News poll published last week found that two-thirds of Americans -- including 62 percent of independents and nearly 80 percent of people 65 and older -- want no change in Medicare.
Ryan's Medicare provision would drastically change Medicare from the federal entitlement it has been since its inception in 1965. As chairman of the House Budget Committee, Ryan is calling for senior citizens who join Medicare in 2022 and beyond to receive vouchers, or "premium supports," to help pay for private insurance they would buy on their own.
While Reed encountered some criticism as he fielded questions Saturday at St. Bonaventure, he was greeted mostly with heads nodding in agreement as he made his case.
"The good news is that everything is on the table now," he said, even traditional "third rail" subjects like Medicare, Social Security and defense spending.
"When the president first put out his budget in his State of the Union address, it was all about how we were going to freeze spending," Reed added. "That has completely changed, and that's due to the freshman majority in Congress. We have changed the conversation."
Reed, 39, conceded that some degree of "sacrifice" will be sought from people 54 and younger who would be asked to join the revamped Medicare program. But he called it a "pretty common-sense solution."
"Those who are 54 and under can make adjustments to make it happen," he said, calling the proposal an "honest conversation with the American people."
He also insisted that the influx of millions of senior citizens will force private health insurance industry to respond.
"Our hope is to cause the competition that will drive health insurance costs down," he said, despite critics' claims that senior citizens' health problems will make private plans unaffordable.
He also rejected a plan advanced by the Obama administration for a panel of health care experts to impose a version of price controls on health care. He said he is wary of unelected bureaucrats in charge of such a critical portion of the national economy.
"I come down on the side of private market pressures and opening it up to competition," he said.
Reed even hinted that some improvement in the employment and stock market situation stems from investors around the world responding to the new conversation. Still, he predicted the looming battle over plans to overhaul Medicare will be "nasty."
He also predicted that Washington's next big battle will be over proposals to raise the national debt limit some time next month. He says the debate should be used to face more proposals to rein in spending.
"If it's an up or down vote on raising the debt ceiling, I'm a 'no,' " he said. "It's going to be a vehicle of opportunity to deal with this problem."