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JOHNSTON — In a debate between the candidates for U.S. Senate in Iowa, both agreed that incumbent Republican Chuck Grassley has been in office for a long time. Where they differed was the value of that seniority.
Thursday night marked the first and only scheduled debate between Grassley and Democratic challenger former Navy Admiral Mike Franken, as each tried to persuade voters he would be the better representative for Iowans in Washington.
Grassley touted his seniority, noting that he would be the longest-serving and most senior senator after the election, should he be elected to an eighth term. Patrick Leahy, an eight-term Democrat from Vermont, is the only current senator with a longer tenure than Grassley and will retire after 2022.
“If I’m reelected to the United States Senate, I will be No. 1 in the United States Senate,” Grassley said. “Iowa will be No. 1 on my agenda, whether you’re Republican, Democrat or independent, and my opponent would be No. 100.”
Grassley also said he’s dedicated to his position, noting he holds the longest record of not missing a vote in the Senate, making consecutive votes for 27 years before he got COVID-19 in 2021.
Franken, however, said Grassley’s time in the Senate has been defined by failure to solve problems and a lack of leadership. Franken said he would be an energetic and new voice for Iowa.
“I’ve got the vivaciousness and the intellect, the ideas and a life full of experiences living across the world, across the globe,” Franken said, promising to “be your best senator ever.”
After repeatedly saying he believes abortion should be a state issue after the fall of Roe v. Wade — but without ruling out federal action also — Grassley said he would vote no on a national abortion ban being proposed in the Senate.
Republican U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina has a proposed bill that would ban abortion nationally at 15 weeks, leaving exceptions for rape, incest and the life of the mother. Grassley previously co-sponsored a bill that would have set the limit at 20 weeks.
“I supported a bill before because before the Supreme Court decision, it was a federal issue. Now it’s a state issue,” he said.
Franken said the Senate should codify the 1973 Roe v. Wade abortion rights decision into law, but he didn’t offer a cutoff for when the bill should define viability. He said abortion decisions should be made between women and their doctors.
“We shouldn’t have the government stepping in to determine when viability exists, et cetera,” he said. “The doctor knows this, the woman knows this, this is not something for government to step in and make these determinations.”
Allegations of misconduct
Franken faces allegations stemming from a police report from April, in which a former campaign staffer accused him of kissing her without consent. Franken has repeatedly denied the incident happened.
In a “Letter from Iowa” that was published Thursday in Politico, Iowa-based writer Lyz Lenz, a former Gazette opinion writer, quoted two women she did not name who alleged Franken had “crossed boundaries” with women and made them uncomfortable.
Franken said during the debate that the former campaign staffer’s allegation was false, saying police investigated the assertion and determined it was unfounded.
“I’m a husband, two kids, girl and a boy, wife of 33 years,” he said. “Forty-year history of zero tolerance of sexual malfeasance, sexual misdeeds, of gender-related harassment.”
Franken said Grassley has supported banning abortion, supports unequal pay and voted against the Violence Against Women Act, and that his policies have hurt women.
“My colleague, you’re in no position to lecture me about women,” Grassley said in response. “You’re in no position to do that.”
Addressing a campaign ad accusing Franken of having no plan to combat inflation, Franken said the Senate can’t “instantaneously reduce inflation” but he said there are solutions to the record-high prices facing Americans.
Franken said the loss of manufacturing jobs and slowing immigration has increased inflation. He also noted that Grassley opposed legislation like the Inflation Reduction Act and a proposition to cap the cost of insulin at $35 a month, which Democrats said would cut health care costs.
“We can do a lot as a senator, but it takes long-standing altruism and intellect to make it happen, and not be a stooge for big corporations,” Franken said.
Grassley said inflation has been caused by high spending from congressional Democrats and the Biden administration, including the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan and forgiving some student loans. Iowa is among the Republican-led states suing to stop the loan forgiveness program from taking effect.
“When you’re in a hole, you quit digging, but the Democrats are not quit digging,” Grassley said. “...It’s quite certain that if (Franken) were in the Senate, he’d be a continuation of these policies.”
On capping insulin costs, Grassley said he supports a $35 cap on insulin but voted against an amendment to the Inflation Reduction Act for procedural reasons. He referred to a separate bill that would cap insulin and also address the role of pharmaceutical benefit managers.
He also pointed to a bill he’s authored with U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., that would limit increases to drug prices. According to a Congressional Budget Office review of the 2020 version, the bill would reduce out-of-pocket spending by $72 billion and reduce premiums by $1 billion.
Franken said he supports a universal health care system, calling the current U.S. health care system inefficient. He criticized Grassley for voting against the Affordable Care Act and other health-care related legislation.
“The health care system in the United States military is what everybody in America ought to have,” Franken said.
The general election for state and federal offices will be held Nov. 8. The first day of early voting, either by mail-in ballot or at county auditors’ offices, begins Oct. 19.