Source: The Gazette

By Erin Murphy

DES MOINES — Joni Ernst today serves her 100th day in office as a freshman U.S. senator from Iowa.

During her first four months in office, she has been active in veterans and foreign affairs, two issues right in the wheelhouse of a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army Iowa National Guard.

Ernst’s first bill would allow veterans to access mental health care services outside the Veterans Affair network. And she has spoken out about Middle East issues.

A Republican from Red Oak and former state senator, she was elected in November to fill Iowa’s vacancy in the U.S. Senate, long held by Democrat Tom Harkin.

Ernst spoke with the Gazette-Lee Des Moines Bureau about those first 100 days and her expectations of what’s ahead.

She made an immediate splash when she was chosen by Republican leadership to give the party’s response to President Barack Obama’s State of the Union.

“Overall, it has just been amazing,” Ernst said during a phone interview from Washington. “It really has gone fast because we are so busy every single day.”

Ernst and her staff still are operating out of a small, temporary office. She said she expects to move into her permanent office this summer, and then she will be able to round out her staff.

When meeting constituents — she said more than 1,200 Iowans have visited her in D.C. — she sometimes borrows a conference room in Sen. Chuck Grassley’s office,

Ernst said she has high hopes for her first Senate bill. She plans to begin discussing the legislation with colleagues in hopes of drawing sponsors. So far, it has just three including Grassley.

“There is still a lot of legwork to do, but overall it is receiving really wonderful attention and support from a number of our members here,” Ernst said.

She was among congressional members who criticized the Department of Veterans Affairs for how it measured the number of miles a veteran must live from the nearest VA medical center before the department pays for treatment at a closer facility. Responding to criticism, the VA changed the rule.

“This is something we supported,” Ernst said. “I understand living in a rural area and the challenges we have.”

Ernst also dipped her toes in foreign affairs, welcoming Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Congress and criticizing the Obama administration’s negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program.

“I think it was wonderful having (Netanyahu) here. I am a huge supporter of Israel,” Ernst said. “I think he made some very strong, very moving remarks.”

During his speech, Netanyahu criticized the Obama administration’s role in negotiating with Iran a deal that would attempt to limit the country’s ability to produce nuclear weapons.

“With the Iranian negotiations, it’s troubling that (Israelis) don’t have a seat at the table yet,” Ernst said. “We continue to move forward like they’re not an ally.”

Ernst defended her decision to join 46 other senators in signing a letter to Iranian leaders warning that any deal negotiated by the Obama administration also must be cleared by Congress and may not be honored by a future president.

“It flabbergasts me that we got pushback. I think that was politically motivated. We are simply stating the truth about the matter: The president can’t undo the sanctions already in place. We just spelled that out to Iran.”

In Iowa, Ernst has opened offices in Davenport, Cedar Rapids, Sioux City, and Des Moines. She said her staff also plans a Council Bluffs office.

Ernst said she has visited 51 of Iowa’s 99 counties. She also responded to criticism that some of her tour stops are held at businesses and do not allow for public access. She said some businesses are sensitive to their operations being open to the public for reasons pertaining to safety or proprietary information.

“We’re doing a great mixture as we’re going through the communities,” Ernst said. “We do have a number of open town halls.”

Ernst struck back at detractors by noting former Sen. Harkin had not made such tours.

“I can’t remember the last time the previous senator did a 99-county tour,” Ernst said. “I care about Iowa, and I want to learn all there is to learn about Iowa, and I am making that effort.”

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