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By Sarah Watson May 21, 2020

Did Joni Ernst flip her position on health care funding?

If Your Time is short

  • Democrats and Republicans were at loggerheads in April over whether to sandwich more funding for hospitals and testing with dollars for the Paycheck Protection Program as money ran out for the federal small business loan program.

  • Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa pivoted in messaging, initially criticizing efforts to include any add-ons to replenish the Paycheck Protection Program, but later said she pushed for hospital and COVID-19 testing that was included in replenishing the PPE funds.

The Iowa Democratic Party claims in its 2020 campaign against U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, that Ernst reversed her support for a coronavirus relief plan 3.5, which offered nearly half a trillion dollars for small businesses, hospitals and testing.

The Iowa Democratic Party claimed in the headline of an April 21 statement that Ernst opposed funding for hospitals and COVID-19 testing for weeks before $75 billion to reimburse health-care providers and $25 billion for COVID-19 diagnostic testing was included in an interim coronavirus relief bill passed by the Senate April 21 and signed by President Trump April 24. It’s a claim Democrats have continued to make against Ernst.

Both Republicans and Democrats blocked interim economic relief packages proposed by the other party in April before the final half-a-trillion-dollar package cleared the Senate. The Republicans’ proposal would’ve solely funded the quickly depleted Paycheck Protection Program, a loan program created by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act and launched April 4 for businesses that keep employees on their payroll. Democrats pushed for a $500-billion-dollar-plus aid package with Paycheck Protection Program funds as well as $100 billion for hospitals and $150 billion for state and local government, of which some of the hospital funds made it into the final deal.

Iowa Democratic Party Communications Director Jeremy Busch referred in an interview with The Daily Iowan to a series of interviews and public statements Ernst made in April as proof her tune had changed on the expanded relief funding. 

As negotiations on refilling the Paycheck Protection Program were ongoing, Ernst said in an April 16 Fox News interview she supported the program and disagreed with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi that Congress should wait.

"We have small businesses that desperately need this funding to keep their employees on payroll. If they can't do that, those employees will go unemployed and that is not the route. So, I do believe that what we had was a narrowly crafted bill to replenish the funds for PPP, but the Democrats wanted to hijack it with unrelated items and additional changes. We have a program that's working, now we need to make sure that it's properly funded."

In an email to the Daily Iowan's PolitiFact Iowa, Ernst’s spokesperson, Brendan Conley, wrote that Ernst’s comment on "unrelated items and additional changes" referred to an early House version of what eventually became the CARES Act, the third relief bill. The version Conley referred to was noted in a March 23 article in the Hill; it didn’t clear the Senate but included funding to curb airline pollution. However, the Paycheck Protection Program launched after that article, on April 3, as part of the $2.2 trillion CARES Act, making it unlikely that the narrowly crafted bill to replenish the funds for PPP referred to the measure that created the loan program.

The proposal that better fits what Ernst is describing in the Fox News interview would’ve bumped up funding for the Paycheck Protection Program. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, asked senators on April 9 to approve with unanimous consent a measure that would have added $250 million in federal funds to the Paycheck Protection Program. He argued on the Senate floor that the small business loan program's funds were running out and that negotiations for hospital, local government, and test funding should be part of a separate congressional package at a later date. The reason: the extra funding wouldn’t pass unanimously, he said.

However, McConnell’s measure did not receive unanimous consent, as two Democrats voiced opposition. No formal recorded vote was taken to gauge Senate support for the initial proposal, so there's no formal record of Ernst's support or opposition to that measure.

Minutes after the two Democratic senators from Maryland rejected McConnell’s ask to fast-track the measure, the pair proposed their own amendment which was double the dollar figure of McConnell’s. It included $100 billion for hospitals dealing with COVID-19 and $150 billion for state and local governments. 

A final proposal to McConnell’s original interim bill included $500 billion for hospitals, the Paycheck Protection Program and COVID-19 testing, but none for local government. The Senate approved that measure April 21 with unanimous consent, a procedural fast-tracking move that means no senators voiced opposition. Again, the Senate didn’t record a vote tally, but Conley wrote to the DI in an email that Ernst supported that half-a-trillion-dollar bill.

A day before the final proposal was approved in the Senate, Ernst said in an April 20 town hall, that she supported the $3.5 coronavirus relief bill’s extra $75 billion to reimburse health-care providers and $25 billion for COVID-19 diagnostic testing.

"We will also get the additional dollars we wanted for diagnostic testing an additional $25 billion there as well as another $75 billion for our hospitals. And again this is something that I’ve pushed for because we want to make sure that our rural hospitals are sustaining through this COVID-19 pandemic," Ernst said.

Conley wrote in an April 24 email to the Daily Iowan:

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"Sen. Ernst fully supports the additional funding for hospitals and testing — which are very much related to the COVID-19 pandemic — as she reiterated on Monday (April 20), and that's exactly why she supported the bill that passed the Senate this week. Her voting record shows, in no uncertain terms, that she supports those measures."

In other statements as well before the final interim package passed, Ernst reiterated her support for a narrower agreement.

According to a RadioIowa report, Ernst said April 16 that discussions about extra funding for hospitals and local governments could wait until Congress passed the PPP funds. 

"No political gimmicks, just a simple ask to put more money in this program," RadioIowa reported Ernst saying. "Unfortunately, politics got in the way."

In a statement from Ernst’s office April 9, the day Democrats and Republicans rejected each others’ interim relief plans, Ernst criticized Democrats for rejecting Republicans’ proposal, stating that passing small business loan relief funds was too urgent to delay. 

"After hearing from Iowans and seeing the overwhelming response of small businesses across the country, it’s clear we need to bolster the Paycheck Protection Program. We don’t have time for political games; we’re in a crisis. Workers and employers in Iowa and across the country need this relief now more than ever, so let’s put aside the politics and swiftly get this specific additional support for small businesses approved so money can keep flowing, Iowa workers can continue to collect a paycheck, and our state’s small businesses can stay afloat," Ernst said.

Congress put $350 billion toward the PPP at it's creation. The program stopped taking applications when the funds ran dry April 16 date, and resumed taking applications April 27.

The interim package was one of several COVID-19 relief packages Congress has passed. 

Our ruling

The Iowa Democratic Party claimed that Ernst reversed her support for a coronavirus relief in a recent bill that offered nearly half a trillion dollars for small businesses, hospitals and testing.

Due to a lack of concrete voting record, we reviewed Ernst's statements before and after the passage of the interim coronavirus-relief bill. 

Ernst hasn't said she directly opposed hospital funding, but in public statements she was critical of putting a proposal on the floor with funding that was more broad than the Paycheck Protection Program.

When Democrats brought their version of the interim relief proposal, which included extra dollars for hospitals and local government, to the senate floor April 9, McConnell objected. Ernst is the Vice Chair of the Senate GOP Conference, meaning she is part of Republican leadership.

However, she didn’t vote down additional funds for hospitals or COVID-19 testing in the final half-a-trillion-dollar package. She said later she pushed for hospital funding included in the interim relief package. But, she never said she directly opposed that funding. Rather, she said it should be discussed at a later date. 

The claim is partially accurate but needs additional context. We rate it Half True. 


Our Sources

Email exchanges with Jeremy Busch, Iowa Democratic Party spokesperson

Email exchanges with Brendan Conley, Sen. Joni Ernst spokesperson

Iowa Democratic Party of Iowa, press release, Ernst Claims She "Pushed For" Relief Funding She’s Opposed for Weeks and Senate GOP Has Blocked, April 21, 2020:

Fox News Interview, "Sen. Ernst: ‘Narrowly crafted bill’ created to replenish funds for PPP, Democrats ‘hijacked’ with unrelated items," April 16, 2020.

U.S. Senate Floor Proceedings Video Recording, April 9, 2020. Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Sens. Ben Cardin and Chris Van Hollen, D-Md. 

U.S. Senate glossary: definition of unanimous consent

Legislative action Senate Floor proceedings, April 21, 2020


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