Congress at a crossroads less than a year into the Trump administration and key republican priorities are teetering on the brink of failure. We check in with Senator Joni Ernst on this edition of Iowa Press.

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For decades, Iowa Press has brought you politicians and newsmakers from across Iowa and beyond. Now celebrating more than 40 years of broadcast excellence on statewide Iowa Public Television, this is the Friday, October 20 edition of Iowa Press. Here is David Yepsen.    

Yepsen: The notion of the U.S. Senate as a deliberative body intent on cautiously weighing legislative issues is well-known. But the political wins of 2017 have tested that long-held belief as President Trump leans heavily on Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to quickly move through key priorities. The results are a mixed bag of failed health care votes, big promises on tax reform and a dwindling timetable ahead of the 2018 elections. Well, to weigh in on these and other issues is Iowa's first-term U.S. Senator Joni Ernst. Senator, welcome back to Iowa Press.

Ernst: Thank you. Good to be here, thank you.

Yepsen: Thanks for being with us. Across the table, Barbara Rodriguez is Political Writer for the Associated Press and Kay Henderson is News Director at Radio Iowa.

Henderson: Senator, on Thursday evening you and other Midwestern Senators got a letter from EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt. He provided in that letter assurances regarding the federal production levels for biofuels in 2018, the federal mandate. Is that the end of this? Or will you need further Senate action on this front?

Ernst: Well, I do think that we're sitting in a very good position now. One thing that I insisted on when I was working though the negotiations with EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt and the White House was that we get those assurances in writing that way there is no messing around with this, we have it in black and white what the Administrator has told us in private that he would do. So we feel good about where we are. However, I remind people, we always need to be vigilant. It doesn't matter what administration or where we're at, there's always going to be naysayers when it comes to the Renewable Fuel Standard out there.

Henderson: But it seemed as if Pruitt needed to be dragged along kicking and screaming on this. And also the Renewable Fuel Standard, which requires his agency to set production levels, is to expire. Should it be extended?

Ernst: Well, he needed a little motivation, let's put it like that. I do sit on the Environment and Public Works Committee and I went on to that committee because of the significance for Iowa, whether it's infrastructure, whether it is issues like the Renewable Fuel Standard, we oversee the EPA on EPW and knowing the split on that committee is 11 republicans, 10 democrats and they have nominees that they badly want coming through that committee, we do have the leverage. And I was able to utilize that leverage to make sure we got those assurances, not just in private, but in writing.

Rodriguez: Senator, let's talk about health care for a moment. President Trump announced recently that he was going to end cost sharing payments that help people like Iowans afford their health care under the Affordable Care Act. There's members of Congress that have pushed forward a new plan. You're supporting that plan, so is Senator Grassley. But we're getting mixed messages about what President Trump is supporting. And so I'm sort of just curious if this is a worthwhile effort.

Ernst: I think it is a worthwhile effort. And yes, the message out there has been confusing coming from the administration. But we need to continue pressing on because we know the situation that Iowa is in, that's why I've been involved in those discussions. I'm not on the Health, Education, Labor and Pension Committee. But our Chair Lamar Alexander has really included me in those bipartisan discussions, making sure that I'm involved because of the situation we have. We have an individual insurance market with 72,000 Iowans. It is failing. So we will keep pressing on. We do think we have a plan, it has got bipartisan support. We would like to see it brought it up in the Senate. I think we can do that soon and then move it onto the House.

Rodriguez: Let me just make sure that question is a little bit more clear. Is this a worthwhile effort if President Trump doesn't support it?

Ernst: He will. I think if we can get it through the Senate, we have to work on our House members because, again, they have different thoughts on where we should go. The cost sharing payments are important, an important part of this plan. They may not agree in the House. The first hurdle is really getting through Congress. I think if we can get something through Congress then the President would sign it.

Henderson: You just said there are a lot of different thoughts on where we should go. Republicans found that out when you couldn't agree on a plan to repeal and replace Obamacare. Is it now in a bipartisan realm? Will republicans ever regroup and come up with something before the end of the year?

Ernst: Well, we have to keep working on this issue because even this plan that is a bipartisan plan, it's only a two year plan, it's a short-term fix which isn't a perfect plan but it allows the states greater flexibility, it allows those cost sharing payments to continue. We have to look beyond that and that means we are going to have to work on finding a much more long-term, permanent solution.

Rodriguez: Just a quick follow-up there, we're weeks away from open enrollment for the ACA but Iowa is in this unique situation with this proposal to the federal government regarding the stop gap measure where, again, time is ticking between now and open enrollment. What message do you have for those 72,000 Iowans who are waiting for some type of response?

Ernst: Well, it is a really difficult situation that we are in and what Seema Verma had provided, the Administrator of CMS, what she provided to Lamar Alexander was a good portion of the language necessary for Iowa's stop gap measure to go into place. However, that is a decision that Iowa will need to make, they will need to look at that plan, look at what we are proposing in the Senate and decide if that will encourage other insurers to come into the market because basically if we don't have other insurers engaging then really the attempt might be futile.

Rodriguez: And just another point because it's so important, I've talked to some of these 72,000 Iowans and they have expressed a lot of confusion about the stop gap measure, about what's going to happen, even the people whose job it is to inform them about what's going to happen, they don't completely know. How do you ensure proper outreach to make sure that people know what's going to happen on November 1st?

Ernst: Well, and right now I can't tell you what's going to happen on November 1st so I can understand their frustration. The point being is why are we in this mess in the first place? We have seen insurance rates continue to rise over the past now four years. In Iowa alone insurance rates on the individual market went up 110%, that's the three past years, and yet we are facing another about 50% rate hike this year. So we've seen those insurers flee the individual insurance market. They have figured it's not worth their time investing in Obamacare on the individual insurance market. So now we are in a very difficult situation. We have tried the best can to get a repeal and replace done in the Senate. I voted three times to repeal and replace in different forms. I'm working on this bipartisan plan. I am willing to look at whatever is presented to find a pathway forward for Iowans. We are running out of time, there is no doubt about it. But why, when we discovered issues existing in Obamacare, why is it that these items weren't fixed in the past number of years? So it has been very frustrating and believe me, I do understand the frustrations that exist out there, and believe me, that is why I am trying to get a bipartisan plan through. Hopefully it will provide some sort of relief for those Iowans.

Yepsen: Senator, I want to switch gears and talk about tax reform. Most estimates are that this would increase the federal budget deficit, at least that's the democratic criticism of it. What happened to republicans and the budget deficit? I seem to recall you all used to care a great deal about deficits and debt and today it doesn't seem like a very big deal.

Ernst: Well, it is a very big deal. But what we're looking at is short-term when you're providing those tax cuts for lower and middle income families, those tax cuts for corporations and small businesses, then yes you have to watch your spending moving forward in the next several years. But what we have heard from economists and a number of experts that have testified is that of course the greatest things that you can do to spur on the economy is to cut taxes and provide regulatory relief. We have provided a lot of regulatory relief so far this year through Congress and now we are looking at overall tax reform. So while there may be a gap in the short-term, in the future we do expect to see our economy grow at greater than we are hoping 3% GDP, which never happened in the past eight years.

Yepsen: Well, the economy is growing and traditionally tax cuts have been used to try to stimulate the economy. What about the argument that says we don't need any more stimulation in the economy, it's growing, we're at almost 4% unemployment, that's nearly nothing? Is this the time to be cutting taxes? Shouldn't you wait until you have a need for it?

Ernst: I believe it is time and yes we have a need for it. If you look just in Iowa with our ag commodity prices, farmers aren't realizing the actual investment that they're putting into their land. And so I believe as far as Iowa is concerned now and any time is a good time for tax reform. The last major reform that we saw was in 1986. It's time. We are well overdue.

Yepsen: And the version of this that I saw from the Trump White House actually raised tax rates on lower incomes.

Ernst: That's not true, no, and it has been misportrayed because there are actually four different tax brackets. You forget about the zero tax bracket where we're doubling the standard deductibility or the standard deduction and so a lot more folks in that lower level will actually go to a zero percent tax rate.

Rodriguez: Senator, at the end of the day there is no concrete piece of legislation that the public has access to yet so it's a little difficult to fact check some of those points. But I feel like it's important to note here that republicans want to get this through by the end of the year or early 2018. How do you ensure transparency that this just isn't jammed through?

Ernst: Well, there has been a lot of discussion and the highlights of course are cutting the corporate tax rate, the lower and middle income tax rates will also be lowered, again having that zero percent tax rate, with doubling the standard deduction. Those are just the framework of the program. There are a lot of exemptions and credits that will go away, a lot of that has been already stated, will probably go by the wayside. But if we make it easier for people to file they're not spending the dollars to have their taxes done and then they'll see themselves in lower tax brackets. That is the plan. And no, nothing is in text yet. The House continues to work on their plan. We continue to work on what we think is acceptable in the Senate. And hopefully we will have that produced soon so that folks can take a look at that. But I think in this situation all Iowans are going to win. We will see Iowans keeping more dollars in their pockets.

Henderson: The clock is also ticking on the deferred action for childhood arrivals issue, immigration reform. Do you expect the Senate to come up with a plan that can clear the House? There have been immigration reform plans that have cleared the Senate in the past few years that have just struggled in the House and failed.

Ernst: I think there is an openness at least for discussion and that is a great starting point whether it is my democratic colleagues, republican colleagues and we've had a lot of groups that have actually approached us in a number of different areas whether it is manufacturing, whether it is agriculture, they're coming in and they're saying, we really need to have this taken care of, these are members of our communities, it's important that they are here. They're vibrant members, they bring value to us.

Henderson: So what would you vote for?

Ernst: So I would vote to grant a legal permanent residency to those that are covered under DACA but there are other points of contention. Some will insist upon immediate citizenship and then there are others that will say absolutely no citizenship under any circumstances. We have to bridge that gap. So I feel that I'm in that middle ground where I would like to see a legal permanent status for those that are covered by DACA, allow them to move freely and to go to other countries and gain entry back into the United States. That was a point that was brought up by a Dreamer at the Clay County Fair when we talked about it. She said, I don't care about citizenship, she said, I just want to know that I have a legal permanent status so I can go to Mexico and see my grandma and be able to come back.

Rodriguez: Senator, let's also, switching gears here for a little bit, talk about guns. The recent mass shooting in Las Vegas has raised new questions about the use of bump stocks, which as you know is equipment that can make a semiautomatic rifle act, have a higher set of rounds under a minute. Republicans have indicated that they want the ATF to, which is the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, to handle the regulation over that. Some people don't agree with that and they feel that Congress would be more effective in regulating this. What do you say to those individuals?

Ernst: Well, I say one, we have asked the ATF to review this and I feel very strongly that they need to review this. My estimation is that they should make the bump stocks a Class III item, which means it is highly, highly regulated by the ATF.

Rodriguez: What if they don't?

Ernst: Then I think Congress needs to take a look at it.

Henderson: When will Bill Northey receive a confirmation vote in the U.S. Senate, just real quickly?

Ernst: One of my favorite topics, Bill Northey. We did vote him out of committee unanimously yesterday and we expect that when we get back maybe even later next week that we could possibly have a vote on Bill Northey.

Henderson: Real quickly also -- the Iran --

Ernst: Actually sorry, it may take a little bit longer than that. I'm hoping for soon.

Henderson: The Iran Nuclear Deal has been thrown to Congress. Will Congress actually take a vote on additional sanctions?

Ernst: I think if additional sanctions are warranted, and I believe they are, then they probably would take a vote on that.

Rodriguez: When would something like that happen?

Ernst: That is going through the Foreign Affairs Committee. So we'll see what parameters they set. Bob Corker is very involved with that, Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee. And so we have not been provided a timeframe on when that might happen but we are under a deadline. So I know that they are reviewing the documents and the materials provided. But as far as when we'll actually take a vote on that in the full Senate, that should be set by the committee and the floor staff.

Rodriguez: Senator, I also want to ask you about President Trump made some headlines recently with inaccurate claims about previous Presidents and what type of outreach they have with Gold Star families. And the fallout has sort of led to questions about what is appropriate. As a member of the military what do you think?

Ernst: I think any outreach by a President should be welcome and warranted. And I think that is a decision that should be made by that President. I am just very thankful that serving as a company commander overseas during a time of war that I did not have to make those phone calls. But I have had to do a death notification to a mother though in Southwest Iowa. And in the military, serving in a military capacity, we have a very definitive script that we must operate off of when we deliver that news to a loved one. There is no such guideline for a President. But I think just reaching out and expressing sorrow and regret I think is helpful.

Rodriguez: Has the President handled this correctly?

Ernst: I think if you look at the entire discussion of what he said to the young widow it was appropriate I believe. I think he maybe could do that for everyone, reaching out to families that have lost loved ones. But again, who are we to judge what is right for an individual to do? It's always hard when we have to express those regrets.

Henderson: Speaking of this young man who was killed on duty in Niger, should there be an investigation of what happened? Are you comfortable knowing what you may know that the rest of us don't that everything was done for that team on the ground in Africa?

Ernst: Well, I think we do have to know and there will be an investigation so we know that the military any time there is an action like that, that they do an investigation. They will do an after action review and I think that is something that needs to be held closely. If we find out that there are insurgents within that central government or that community that they were visiting that is all information that needs to be kept very close hold to the special operations community because that might warrant secondary or tertiary actions.

Yepsen: Senator, we always like to talk politics on Iowa Press. So, I want you to give me your assessment of President Trump. We heard Senator Corker's. We've heard former President George W. Bush the other day. What is your assessment of Donald Trump's presidency?

Ernst: I think his policy is good. I think he has outlined what the American people want to see action on in Congress and in the administration. As far as all of the aside comments, I try not to engage in that myself. So I stay very focused on what we should be doing as Congress to make sure that our goals are met and the goals of the administration are met, if that is reflective of what Iowans want to see.

Rodriguez: Does that not make your job in Congress more difficult?

Ernst: It does because more people spend time asking about what the President is doing than actually what Joni Ernst is doing in Congress. So I like to stay focused on what we should be able to achieve, what we can do for Iowans and it is distracting. So whether it is tweets or comments by our members or by the President, I wish we could tone down the rhetoric and just really focus on policy issues.

Henderson: Well, speaking of policy, but maybe party philosophy, has the President remade republican policy in regards to trade? You have the NAFTA negotiations undergoing right now, you have TPP, which he got out of. Has your party changed its approach to being free traders and now retracting that under a new Trump philosophy?

Ernst: No, I wouldn't say that's the party, I would say that's Trump because if you look at Iowa we stand fast behind trade. It's really important to Iowa. We have one in five jobs in Iowa tied directly to trade and it seems to be maybe even more of a rural-urban split on that because those that are engaged in agriculture, we understand how important it is to have those markets overseas and continue developing new markets. So I wouldn't necessarily say that that's a new republican policy. I think that we're really very split on that. So I will continue pushing trade opportunities.

Yepsen: Senator, is Donald Trump, do you feel he is keeping his promises that he made to Iowa when he was out here in the caucuses? Renewable fuels, he says one thing, his administration is doing something else. Trade, you've just outlined the importance of trade in Iowa, yet he cancels TPP, we're going to renegotiate NAFTA. Is Donald Trump's presidency a good one for Iowa?

Ernst: It is a mixed bag. I think that he is really putting forward some good policy when you look at really what he wanted to accomplish, repeal and replace Obamacare so that it's more affordable for everyone, which in Iowa right now it's not. That has not passed, we have failed in that attempt multiple times. But with tax reform, he promised tax reform and I do think that we are going to get tax reform done. And infrastructure. Those were his three big agenda items and we are working on an infrastructure bill as well so I hope to see that coming in the New Year. Other items when you look at trade, he made it very clear during the campaign that he was not going to engage in TPP, as did candidate Clinton. Neither candidate was for TPP. So that was a really tough decision that Iowans had to make. We will still continue to engage in trade and he has made the comments as well that instead of a large group negotiation like TPP we would engage in bilateral negotiations.

Henderson: You made a trip to South Carolina to give a speech, that is the state that holds the first in the South primary. Are you prepping for something beyond the Iowa political stage here?

Ernst: No, Kay, I am not. That was done to go support a friend. Congressman Duncan, he holds a rally very similar to the rally that I do here in Iowa. He is a good friend in the House and I agreed to come speak. But no thoughts beyond that.

Henderson: So we shouldn't consider you a potential --

Ernst: You should not.

Rodriguez: Could that change?

Ernst: You know, I always say never say never. But I feel pretty confident at this point that it's a never.

Henderson: You ran in 2014 and won. You'll be up again for re-election in 2020. When you ran did you expect Congress to be as dysfunctional as it is?

Ernst: I would say that I expected it to operate much more like the Iowa State Senate. I have found that is not true. However, I know that we have difficulties amongst the parties but I try to remind everybody though that in spite of some of the larger political divides that we have, we actually do function well together on a lot of agenda items that are important. I remind folks that I engage, whenever I write a bill I do try and find a democratic cosponsor because I think that will make the bill stronger, you bring other ideas into view. So I have partnered with I know, Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, we worked together on a caregiver tax credit which we feel is really important. Kirsten Gillibrand and I engage in military sexual assault bills trying to relieve that problem. There's just so many partners that we have but those partnerships don't get talked about.

Yepsen: Senator, I have just so much time and we're out of time. Thank you very much for being with us today, we really appreciate it.

Ernst: It's a pleasure. Thank you.

Yepsen: And thanks to you for joining our latest edition of Iowa Press. We'll be back next week with former Agriculture Secretaries Dan Glickman and Mike Johanns for a conversation on the future of rural America. Catch us Friday night at 7:30 and Sunday at Noon on our main IPTV channel with a rebroadcast on our .3 World channel Saturday morning at 8:30. For all of us here at Iowa Public Television, I'm David Yepsen. Thanks for joining us today.


Funding for Iowa Press was provided by Friends, the Iowa Public Television Foundation. The Associated General Contractors of Iowa, the public's partner in building Iowa's highway, bridge and municipal utility infrastructure. I'm a dad. I am a mom. I'm a kid. I'm a kid at heart. I'm a banker. I'm an Iowa banker. No matter who you are there is an Iowa banker who is ready to help you get where you want to go. Iowa Bankers, allowing you to discover the genuine difference of Iowa banks.     

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