Ernst: Senate women forge bipartisanship

Source: Des Moines Register

By Kathie Obradovich

A recent conversation with an Iowa political activist wound around to the concern that the new president will be unable to manage an intractable Congress. He verbally threw up his hands: What can we do?

I know what to do, I said.  Elect more women.

When I relayed that story to Sen. Joni Ernst, she laughed.  “I know how, too, and that’s exactly the right answer,” she said.

Ernst says bipartisan collaboration of women in Senate is about relationships

Ernst has enjoyed a high profile in less than two years in the Senate. Right after her election in 2014, she was chosen to deliver the Republican response to the State of the Union address.  This spring, her name has been mentioned as a possible candidate to be Donald Trump’s running mate — a development she shrugs off as hypothetical.

In the meantime, Ernst is learning the job in a way no Iowan has done before. At a time when Congress is all but paralyzed by rancorous partisanship, the Red Oak Republican has been quietly finding ways to reach across party lines to advance legislation. More often than not, her partners have been among the 19 other women in the Senate.

“I think we do see a lot of collaboration between the women in the Senate and we have such good relationships,” Ernst said. “We may not agree, again, 100 percent with certain ideas, but when we do find those issues that we agree on we work very, very well together.”

For example, President Barack Obama signed into law on Friday legislation allowing the burial of female World War II pilots in Arlington Cemetery.  Ernst and Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., initiated the bill and worked with Reps. Martha McSally, R-Ariz., and Susan Davis, D-Calif., in the House.

Also this month, legislation by Ernst and Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., took a significant move forward.  The Military Retaliation Prevention Act, which seeks to protect service members who report sexual assault, was included in the National Defense Authorization Act.

Ernst, a conservative Republican, has even joined with well-known progressive Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and others on a proposed tax credit for family caregivers.

Not all of Ernst’s bipartisan collaborations involve issues of particular interest to women and not all have been successful.  A year ago, the Iowan and Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., introduced legislation to directly arm Iraqi Kurds in the fight against ISIS. The bill attracted three presidential candidates as co-sponsors — Lindsay Graham, Rand Paul and Marco Rubio — but failed to pass the Senate.

Last year, Ernst racked up more co-sponsors for her legislation — 126 — than any other Senate freshman, according to Govtrack.us. The ability to win co-sponsors for legislation is an important part of getting support for a bill, the website noted, although it’s not a guarantee of passage.

These efforts at bipartisanship don’t happen by accident. Ernst said in an interview on “Iowa Press” that she and her staff research her Senate colleagues’ interests to look for common ground.

“Certainly, we look at legislation that perhaps they have worked on before, something that might be similar, maybe they've had an issue that really will resonate with the type of legislation that we are proposing,” Ernst said. “And we take a look at that and we say, you know what, Elizabeth (Warren) had this issue, this would fit very well with our Credit for Caregivers Act. And so let's propose it to her.”

Personal relationships play a vital role, Ernst said. “I would say one of my favorite Democrats that is very different from me is Kirsten Gillibrand. And we get together for lunch, we have a Bible study together and so I have gotten to know Kirsten, as well as her family — we talk about our families and things outside of the legislature. And so she is someone that I would consider a friend.”

Ernst said she and Gillibrand, D-N.Y., disagree on many issues. “But again, when we do find something that we both agree on, we are very passionate about working together on those issues.”

Gillibrand agreed. “I’ve greatly enjoyed working with Senator Ernst. She's always eager to put politics aside and instead find common sense solutions in the Senate,” Gillibrand said in an email. “It’s important for our country to have independent women like Joni who will work across the aisle to find the areas where we agree instead of focusing only on the parts we disagree.”

Ernst also works with men in the Senate but said her interaction is different than with the women. There are regular, bipartisan social gatherings, such as a recent event in Nebraska Sen. Deb Fischer’s office for the women of the Senate.

“Those are nice traditions to have and it’s nice to be part of that organization because we do value relationships, as women. I think that’s one thing a lot of people could work more on in the Senate and in the House, is developing and keeping relationships.”

Sometimes, that means being willing to let another senator put their name first on a bill. “The ego issues are a little different with women,” she said.

Collaboration, where possible, doesn’t necessarily forge accords on many of the serious issues facing the country. Ernst said it doesn’t necessarily even lighten up partisan disagreements, noting she was taken aback by an exchange with Boxer on defunding Planned Parenthood.

“Oh, she went after me, she went after everyone involved in that,” Ernst said. “But at the same time I didn’t take it personally because I know that is an issue we’re split on. But will I work with her on other legislation. If there’s an opportunity and I have a strong conviction on it, I would work with her on it.”

While Iowa’s senior senator, Chuck Grassley, ranked fifth among the 100 senators for bipartisan work in an analysis by the Lugar Center for 2015, Ernst was 38th. A freshman senator obviously has fewer opportunities than someone like Grassley, whose seniority and chairmanships make him a central player.  But Ernst seems to be working to create her own opportunities and making the most of the ones she has.

That skill may come in handy after the next election.  Ernst has said she’ll support Trump as her party’s nominee for president, indicating she could work with him as commander-in-chief. Or, if the Democrats win the White House, Ernst’s ability to work with yet another woman may be put to the test.