DARLINGTON, S.C. – Congressman Tom Rice didn’t discuss presidential politics Tuesday at Joe’s Grill as more than 30 constituents wanted to hear about Iran, growing the economy, veterans and offshore drilling issues instead.

Even after the hour-long event — where people sipped coffee and fired off questions at the second-term Republican — Rice didn’t give any hints about which of the 17 Republican presidential primary candidates he was supporting.

“There was a debate?” Rice jokingly responded when asked about the last week’s GOP debate. “Whoever the Republicans nominate, I’m going to be 1,000 percent behind.”

Rice, who sits on the House Budget Committee and the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said he was disappointed with Congress’ move for another patch for the highway trust fund in late June rather than a long-term fix. He advocates a long-term bill and no more stopgaps.

“By failing to solve the problem, we place uncertainty on our states, economy and businesses trying to operate in this economy and we hold this economy back,” Rice said. “We need to be getting these obstacles out of the way today.”

In early June, Rice hosted an infrastructure symposium at the Southeastern Institute of Manufacturing and Technology, where he stressed the importance of his proposal to increase the federal gas tax buy 10 cents while offsetting the income tax by $130 a year resulting in a budget-neutral move.

“It raises zero money for the federal government,” Rice said “All it does is move money from the general fund into the highway trust fund so secretaries of transportation can rely on a reimbursement check from the gas tax so they can move ahead with their contracts.”

With still no budget passed, Congress on recess until after Labor Day, new sequester cuts set to take effect on Oct. 1 and several Republican senators who could grab the spotlight over another government shutdown, there’s a chance this fall could look like 2013.

“If they were talking about shutting down over Obamacare again I would not be in favor of that,” Rice said. “If they were talking about shutting things down over issues where public opinion is clearer, better defined, then I might support it.”

Rice will visit other locations in the Pee Dee and Grand Strand later this week and next.

The following are several questions asked by constituents on Tuesday.

How do you control student loans and college tuition?

I think it is abhorrent; it’s incredible what’s happened with the cost of higher education.

I think that comes back to the colleges…I’m not sure throwing more federal dollars at is the answer. You’ve had federal dollars thrown at it over and over again; state dollars, lottery money and the costs just continue to escalate. The cost far outpaces inflation and it has for decades.

What ideas do you have to fix the Department of Veterans Affairs?

The most shameful thing is the way we treat our veterans. I have seven people that work in two district offices and we spend 42 percent of our time trying to get veterans what they’re already entitled to.

When 80 people get killed (at the VA facility in Phoenix) and nobody gets fired, that is an amazing thing.

VA health care has had a problem for decades and decades. What we need to do is stop funding VA health care altogether. We need to give the veterans access to Medicare or an insurance policy so they can see whatever doctor they want to so they’re not stuck in line in Columbia.

What is Congress doing to bring manufacturing jobs back?

Not enough.

My primary focus has been trying to make this country competitive.

The one thing the president has done that I’ve seen is he worked the trade bill. That trade bill can make us more competitive, open up markets to us, and help us develop manufacturing here.

Everybody talks about tax reform, regulatory reform, the deficit and all these things that make us less competitive and nobody puts up bills. It’s hard.

We can make this country competitive if we get some of these things out of the way that everybody talks about all the time that nobody ever does anything about.

I’d like for you to consider this deal with Iran as a good idea that could change the atmosphere in the Middle East.

I struggle with a plan that legitimizes proliferation of nuclear weapons for a country that hates us, is destabilizing the entire area that our friends deathly fear.

I know there are people with conflicting ideas, I have sat through briefings with Secretary Kerry and with the people from the atomic energy group and they feel like it’s a grand plan. But I’ve also sat through briefings with representatives with Israel that say it’s a horrible plan and we could do far better.

I’m not sure it’s not going to accelerate military action rather than postpone it.

What should be done about offshore drilling?

Let’s do the seismic testing so we know what’s there. Until we know what’s there we can’t make any rational decisions about it. Let’s get our deal done with the federal government for the 37 percent royalties that the Gulf Coast states are getting on off shore oil recoveries. Thirty-seven percent royalties would put a lot of people to work in this state and build roads all over the place.