GOP casts itself as agents of change

Alan Fram
Associated Press

Washington – — Republicans controlling Congress will focus on people’s concerns about jobs and health care and steer the country away from President Barack Obama’s failed policies, the newly minted senator delivering her party’s official response to the State of Union address said Tuesday.

In remarks that mixed calls for bipartisan cooperation with a flexing of GOP independence, freshman Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, cited Americans’ worries about stagnant wages, lost jobs and canceled health care coverage. She called on Obama to cooperate with Republicans to simplify the tax code by lowering rates and eliminating unspecified loopholes, and to ease trade barriers with Europe and Asia.

“Americans have been hurting, but when we demanded solutions, too often Washington responded with the same stale mindset that led to failed policies like Obamacare,” Ernst, referring to Obama’s health care overhaul, said in excerpts from her speech released before its delivery. “It’s a mindset that gave us political talking points, not serious solutions.”

Ernst’s speech marked her party’s first State of the Union response during the Obama presidency in which the GOP has had majorities in both the House and Senate. It came as Republicans are hoping to expand their appeal among women and minorities in advance of the 2016 presidential and congressional elections.

“We plan to make Washington focus on your concerns again,” she said. “We heard the message you sent in November, loud and clear.”

The evening’s speeches came as the economy has been adding muscle, with economic growth accelerating and unemployment falling. In his remarks, Obama said it was time to “turn the page” on years of war and economic weakness and turn to investments that would strengthen the country.

Ernst, 44, is a fresh face on the national political scene who has been in the Senate for all of two weeks. Her November election victory helped give Republicans control of the Senate for the first time in eight years.

“It’s a smart move to have Senator Ernst give the response because she is a woman representing a competitive blue state in the 2016 elections,” said Republican strategist Ron Bonjean, an aide to former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi. “It shows that she’s seen as an up-and-coming strong player in the Senate and that there’s high expectations that she’s going to be a political influence among her colleagues.”

The conservative Ernst rocketed to prominence in Republican circles last year, when the little-known state senator and Iraq war veteran won the GOP primary and captured a vacant Senate seat that retiring Democrat Tom Harkin had held.

Raised on an Iowa farm, Ernst gained attention for a campaign ad in which she spoke of her experience castrating pigs and vowed to use that attitude against big spenders in Washington, saying, “Let’s make them squeal.” She has advocated the abolition of the IRS and Environmental Protection Agency and spoken of using her gun to defend herself against any government attempts to restrict her rights.

In her speech, Ernst cited recent terrorist attacks in France and elsewhere and said “our hearts go out” to the victims. She called on Obama to craft a comprehensive plan to defeat terrorists.

Bloomberg News contributed.