GILLETTE - Sen. Mike Enzi attracted some rare criticism from his hometown of Gillette over his participation in bipartisan health care negotiations in the U.S. Senate.
About 500 people packed the cavernous Campbell County High School South Campus commons area to hear the Republican and former Gillette mayor speak on health care reform Monday night.
Enzi is one of six senators - three Democrats and three Republicans - on the pivotal Senate Finance Committee who have been negotiating for months to come up with a health care bill that could garner bipartisan support.
He called for bipartisan collaboration and market-based health care solutions, and he drew applause when he spoke against a nationalized system.
"A government option is a monopoly, and it's no option," Enzi said to a thundering round of applause.
Even with passions so inflamed on both sides of the health care debate, Enzi said he believes Republicans and Democrats can work together on legislation for improved and affordable insurance coverage while avoiding a total government takeover of the system.
But state Rep. Timothy Hallinan, R-Gillette, called for Enzi to pull out of negotiations with the Democrats and vote against their health care reform plans. That remark earned a powerful volley of applause.
Later, during the audience question-and-answer portion, a Republican from Sheridan seconded Hallinan's position.
The Rev. Nicholas Voyadgis, a retired Anglican priest who touted his Republican credentials, told Enzi that while he appreciated his ability to compromise, he disliked the fact that President Barack Obama has singled out Enzi as "a Republican friend in Congress" he can work with.
It was Enzi's duty to his constituents to terminate negotiations, the man said to loud applause.
This time, Enzi responded. "If I hadn't been involved in this process as long as I have and to the depth as I have, you would already have national health care," he said.
"Someone has to be at the table asking questions," Enzi said, showing a flash of passion.
He later quoted a favorite saying: "If you're not at the table, you're on the menu."
"It's not where I get them to compromise, it's what I get them to leave out," Enzi said.
A few other members of the crowd questioned Enzi's record of campaign contributions from the health care industry and argued that a public insurance option is necessary.
In response, Enzi pointed to other federal health insurance plans, Medicare and Medicaid chief among them, which are "going broke" providing coverage. A nationwide public option would suffer a similar fate, Enzi said.
Enzi said he still hopes that piecemeal legislation - such as what he has proposed in the past - could accomplish meaningful reform at a more reasonable pace.