Despite crowd’s hostility, Ernst gratified by town hall in Cedar Rapids

CEDAR RAPIDS — Despite people shouting “you lie,” waving signs telling her to not “castrate health care” and accusing her of “declaring war on average Americans,” U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst welcomed input from a highly partisan, overflow crowd Friday at a town-hall meeting.

If nothing else, the Iowa Republican said, the gathering demonstrated that “Iowans understand how politics works” and how to engage elected officials.

“For me, it’s actually a little bit gratifying to hear what they are thinking,” she said after an hourlong session with more than 1,000 people at Coe College’s Sinclair Auditorium. “It’s important that they do that.”

And the crowd let her know that it doesn’t think much of the proposed replacement to the Affordable Care Act, the president’s “skinny budget” or much of anything they see coming out of the Trump administration and Congress.

Many questioned the House Republican health care plan, which Mary Vermillion of Iowa City said would “redistribute wealth upward.”

Ernst said she has questions, too, but said that the act — popularly known as Obamacare — is not sustainable and must be replaced.

Later, asked about the opposition to the House GOP health care plan, Ernst said it’s a personal, emotional issue because “of all the topics we deal with, it impacts us probably the most.”

She promised a cautious, deliberate approach to making the so-called American Health Care Act better if it comes to the Senate.

“I can’t say today whether I support it or don’t support it,” Ernst said.

Before she can decide, Ernst has to know how it would affect Iowans, she said, especially working Iowans who can’t afford Obamacare premiums.

She related a story of a single mother who chose to go without health insurance in order to have money to send her sons to college, and another about a woman paying $400 a month for a policy with a $9,000 deductible.

“In all likelihood, she’ll never meet that deductible, so she’s paying everything out of pocket,” Ernst said.

Ernst said she also has questions about tax credits in the GOP plan. She said she wants to ensure working families can find affordable coverage.

“It’s really important to me (because) in Iowa we have a lot of folks who fall into that category — they would like to have the coverage but they just can’t afford it,” Ernst told reporters.

“What we have to do is make sure that we can offer the broadest plans that people can pick and choose from, that would be competitive, that works for their families,” she said. “We don’t have that option now.”

In a report Monday, the Congressional Budget Office predicted that 24 million fewer people would have coverage a decade from now than if Obamacare remained intact, nearly doubling the share of Americans who are uninsured from 10 to 19 percent. But the GOP legislation would lower the deficit by $337 billion during that time.

The report predicted premiums would be 15 to 20 percent higher in the first year compared with those under Obamacare, but 10 percent lower on average after 2026. Older Americans would pay “substantially” more and younger Americans less.

Ernst responded to several other issues, including President Donald Trump’s assertions that then-President Barack Obama wiretapped him, and Trump’s refusal to release his tax returns.

“If the White House is going to push out an accusation like that, they need to back it up,” Ernst said of the wiretap claim. “We’ve seen no evidence presented. Lesson learned, they need to back it up.”

She encouraged Trump to follow the example of recent presidents and make his tax returns available.

“It promotes transparency,” she said, but rejected the idea that candidates be prohibited from running for the presidency until they release their returns.

What was lacking from the town hall, however, was a commitment to “go back to Washington and put pressure on Republican colleagues to urge Trump” to release his returns, according to Iowa Democratic Party Chairman Derek Eadon.

The meeting showed that Ernst has “clearly turned her back on Iowans and fell into line with the Washington political machine,” he said.

“Ernst spent most of her time at today’s town hall evading questions and delivering Republican talking points. Words are not enough and Iowans deserve action from Sen. Ernst,” he said.

Ernst said the hostility of her audience won’t deter her from continuing her third 99-county tour of Iowa in as many years. The change in administration “seems to be driving people out” to her events, she said.

“I believe in elected officials being accessible,” she said. That included accepting an invitation to hold a town hall in Iowa City.

Accessibility to her Cedar Rapids town hall was limited by space. The fire marshal requested the doors be closed at noon — when the meeting started — because Sinclair Auditorium, which seats 1,027, was filled beyond capacity, according to Rod Pritchard, secretary of the college.

It was the first time in his 14 years there that people have been turned away from an event at Sinclair.

About 40 people who were turned away were given chairs so they could sit outside and watch a live stream of the town hall on their mobile devices.

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The Washington Post contributed to this report.