DES MOINES, Iowa — Iowa U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst said Monday night she had been "very consistent" in her views on Supreme Court justices despite supporting a vote on President Donald Trump's nominee while working with other Republicans to block a nomination by President Barack Obama.
Ernst was asked about her seemingly contradictory stands during a televised debate with Democrat Theresa Greenfield that touched on topics ranging from the Supreme Court and Trump's tax returns to health care and racial justice.
Ernst said this nomination is different than in 2016 because Republicans control both the Senate and presidency, unlike in 2016, so the GOP actions four years ago didn't conflict with the party's current stand.
"I've been very consistent on this," Ernst said, adding that she wouldn't let "the radical left" expand the number of Supreme Court justices to offset the current conservative majority as some progressive groups have supported.
Trump's Democratic challenger, Joe Biden, hasn't said he supports expanding the number of justices, and Greenfield said she would oppose such proposals.
The Senate has never confirmed a Supreme Court justice so close to the election, and Greenfield argued that as Republicans blocked a vote on Obama's selection of Merrick Garland nine months before Obama left office, the GOP-majority Senate shouldn't act on Trump's nomination of Judge Amy Coney Barrett fewer than 40 days before the presidential election.
"Iowans are going to the polls in just a few days and I believe they're independent voters, they're independent thinkers and we should let them vote and let the next U.S. Senate and president get seated and then process this nomination," Greenfield said.
Ernst easily won election to a first Senate term in 2014 but her race for reelection has been much tighter, with a Des Moines Register/Mediacom Iowa Poll showing Greenfield, the president of a Des Moines real estate and development company, leading 45% to 42% among likely voters with little more than a month before the election. The race is considered essential to the Republican efforts to hold onto their Senate majority.
Asked about a New York Times report on Sunday that the president didn't pay any federal income taxes in 11 years between 2000 and 2018 and paid only $750 in two other years despite claiming to be a billionaire, Ernst said she has long felt Trump should release his tax returns. Ernst said, however, that she hadn't had time to "scrutinize" the Times story.
"We don't know where that information came from, so more yet to be discovered. But bottom line, we would like to see lower taxes for everybody, including our hard-working Americans," Ernst said, noting that Greenfield has supported changes to tax cuts backed by Trump.
Greenfield said Trump should release his tax returns and argued the Times story pointed to the larger unfairness of the tax system.
"The fact the president only paid $750 in 2016, 2017 just really reflects how the system doesn't work for hard-working people and everyday Iowans, and that the wealthiest and biggest corporations get the biggest benefits," Greenfield said.
Ernst and Greenfield were usually polite during the hour-long debate, which took place at a round table divided by plastic barriers in a television studio. However, it became more animated as it neared the midway point and moderator David Yepsen several times chided the candidates for speaking over each other.
On the question of health care, Greenfield called for expanding the Affordable Care Act and working to reduce costs, and she criticized Ernst for repeatedly voting to repeal the health care law.
Ernst said she had proposed measures that would reduce the cost of health care, and she accused Democrats of wanting a Medicare for all plan that she argued would devastate rural hospitals.
Both candidates also said they supported efforts to improve racial justice in the country, but Greenfield interrupted Ernst when the senator said "my opponent has accused our law enforcement officers of being racist." Ernst based her claim on Greenfield's comment that there is systemic racism in U.S. law enforcement.
Greenfield, who repeatedly called Ernst's comment "a lie," has said she believes there is systematic racism in many American institutions, including law enforcement, but that doesn't mean she thinks all police are racist.
"I come from a long line of police officers and I'm absolutely offended that you would suggest that," Greenfield said.