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CEDAR RAPIDS - Two rivals seeking an open seat to represent Southeast Iowa in Congress split Thursday night in a televised debate over how strictly to enforce COVID-19 mitigation measures and sparred over each other's records on health care.
Former Democratic state Sen. Rita Hart and Republican state Sen. Mariannette Miller-Meeks met for their second debate, this one less than four weeks from the Nov. 3 election as early voting is underway.
The debate was broadcast live from the KCRG-TV9 studio in partnership with The Gazette.
The candidates are running for the 2nd Congressional District seat now held by U.S. Rep. Dave Loebsack, D-Iowa City. He is retiring after seven terms representing the 24-county district that includes Johnson and Scott counties.
As the debate largely centered on the pandemic, the two agreed that Congress should take swift action to reach bipartisan solutions.
Negotiations on more government aid have stalled in Congress as President Donald Trump waffles on pressing the legislative branch to pass a relief package.
Trump had tweeted Tuesday that he 'instructed my representatives to stop negotiating until after the election,” though hours later, he urged Congress to pass a new relief bill.
Hart said the shaky negotiations are 'disappointing” because politicians in Washington showed they can come together to get something done with their passage in March of the $2 trillion CARES Act.
Without another wave of relief, Hart said, there will be more unemployment and a larger homeless population, and industries including retail and hospitality will continue to suffer.
'We need this relief now,” Hart said.
Miller-Meeks agreed that the hiatus in negotiations over another relief package was 'disappointing,” especially seeing firsthand the struggling individuals and small businesses in her town.
Another bill should provide additional Paycheck Protection Program funds, address unemployment and facilitate Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits - popularly known as food stamps - to help those with food insecurity, Miller-Meeks said.
She touted Iowa's 'conservative fiscal practices” as helping the state better brace for the pandemic than other states, taking aim at three states under Democratic control.
'You can't expect the taxpayers of Iowa to bailout Illinois or New York or California for their poor fiscal practices,” Miller-Meeks said.
On the issue of whether a mask mandate is needed, Miller-Meeks said she practices social distancing, wears a mask in public and sanitizes her hands - though she thinks others shouldn't be forced to do the same.
'I think those simple things all of us can do to make it better for everyone else,” she said, but she had doubts about how to enforce a mandate and whether to fine or arrest individuals not wearing masks.
Hart did not explicitly state whether she favored a mask mandate, but called for following the science on COVID-19 and to 'quit making this a political thing.”
'Until we get this infection rate down, we're going to struggle with this economy, and we're actually going to be worse if we don't do that,” Hart said.
Asked where she breaks from Trump, Miller-Meeks said she thinks the White House's event for Trump's nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court 'could've been handled differently” with appropriate social distancing, physical separation and mask wearing.
When a vaccine for COVID-19 eventually is distributed, Miller-Meeks said she would get it but that it should not be mandatory.
Hart, on the other hand, said 'if it's been cleared by the health experts, absolutely we should all be front and center, and yes there should be a mandate. If we're going to keep people safe, we've got to make it happen.”
Like in the first televised debate Sept. 24, Miller-Meeks criticized Hart for her vote in the Iowa Legislature backing a 2018 bill that allowed organizations in the state to create health care plans that could avoid federal requirements like the one in the Affordable Care Act that says insurance companies cannot reject individuals with preexisting conditions.
'I did not vote to deny anybody any kind of health care,” Hart said, describing it as a vote in favor of her constituents - particularly farmers she said had told her existing coverage plans were too expensive.
The Wheatland Democrat in turn said Miller-Meeks has 'consistently been in favor of repealing the ACA.”
The Obama-era health care law has come into the spotlight again as Barrett's nomination to the nation's highest court has some Democrats fearing a majority-conservative court will overturn the law without a legislative solution.
There was largely harmony as the candidates promoted their visions of bolstering Iowa's roadways, bridges, waterways and other facets of infrastructure.
Miller-Meeks said the Aug. 10 derecho particularly showed a need to look at Iowa's electric infrastructure and grids to better handle another natural disaster.
She also said there is a need to boost access to telehealth and strengthen insurance coverage for virtual health care, as well as to increase access to rural broadband to support virtual learning, health care and work.
Hart pointed out a need for improved locks and dams so farmers can get their products to market, improved two-lane highways and access to rural hospitals with good health and mental health care.
Hart, a 20-year teacher, unsuccessfully ran for lieutenant governor with Fred Hubbell on the Democratic ticket for governor in 2018. This is the farmer's first bid for Congress.
Miller-Meeks is an Ottumwa eye surgeon who has run for the 2nd District three times before and is a first-term state senator. She was formerly the director of the Iowa Department of Public Health.
Polling in recent months has shown the race as roughly a dead heat, at points leaning toward either candidate. In the September Des Moines Register/Mediacom Iowa Poll, a sample of 658 likely voters indicated they favored Hart. An earlier Monmouth University poll with a sample of 374 likely voters showed Miller-Meeks had an edge.
The next debate between the two will be Oct. 15 and hosted by KWQC-TV and the Quad City Times.
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