Republican Senator Joni Ernst fielded questions about health care, President Trump and other topics at testy town hall meetings in Cedar Rapids and Des Moines today. In both cities, Ernst was pressed to express her views on the Republican plan to replace the Affordable Care Act.
“We can’t maintain the current status of the law because we know it’s failing already,” Ernst said in Des Moines early this evening, drawing a chorus of boos and jeers. “…We already know there are a number of insurers that are pulling out of the exchanges.”
Ernst later told reporters she can’t say today whether she’d vote for or against the replacement plan House Republicans have crafted.
“I am legitimately undecided on this and you will hear that from a number of my colleagues as well,” Ernst said after the town hall meeting in Des Moines. “…We want to make sure that there is a good, stable transition period…making sure that we have affordable coverage because right now we don’t have affordable coverage, so those are some pretty big concerns that I have. We’re going to have to iron that out.”
The 5 p.m. crowd in Des Moines started with a recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance that was a hint of the raucous hour to follow.
AUDIO of Des Moines town hall, 67:00
Ernst emphasized her bill to allow birth control to be sold over the counter when criticized by crowd members upset by GOP plans to “defund” Planned Parenthood. She denounced fellow Republican Steve King’s controversial comments, but didn’t embrace the crowd’s demand that she call for King’s resignation. And Ernst listened to a man in the crowd who doesn’t consider Trump to be legitimately elected president speak for three minutes about his fears and concerns.
Ernst replied: “There’s a lot going on there. I will tell you I agree that he should release his taxes.”
The crowd cheered heartily for that declaration, then Ernst continued: “There are precedents out there. All of our presidents have done it before. We would ask that he do the same…I just want to reassure everybody…going back to the Russians, which I also agree that Russian should have no involvement in our elections process, but I do want to reassure everybody that we have wonderful elections professionals here in Iowa and the elections were not hacked, but there could have been influence out there.”
Many in the crowd had green signs that said “agree” and red signs that said “disagree.” The signs were held aloft during the event to illustrate opinions, but the crowd wasn’t shy about verbalizing their opinions.
Ernst told reporters she doesn’t think the crowds are “paid protesters,” but Ernst said people are using social media to coordinate their presence at events like her town hall meetings and things like those signs.
“Generally, when people are o.k. with the way their government is working, they’re not calling. They’re not coming out,” Ernst said. “What we wanted to hear from are those people that maybe really do have those concerns and just understand where they’re coming from.”
During her early evening news conference, Ernst was asked if Trump’s agenda might fare better in congress if he and his staff weren’t sidetracked by tweets about wiretaps and intrigue.
“I would love it if he’d just put the phone down,” Ernst said, slapping one hand against the other. “Just put the phone down. We need to stay focused. In congress, we are working really hard. A number of us are out, trying to hear what’s going on in these communities. We want to know what’s affecting daily lives in our home states and we need to be able to focus on that.”
As for Trump alleging President Obama ordered wiretaps on Trump Tower and got British agents to do it, Ernst said Trump and his administration “need to be careful about making allegations they can’t back up.”
During her town hall appearances, Ernst also indicated skepticism for Trump’s budget plan, including a proposal to cut the free and reduce-price school lunches for low-income children.