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U.S. Senate Candidates Shaheen, Messner Divided Over SCOTUS, COVID Relief; Agree On China Threat


After days of hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee, U.S. Senator Jeanne Shaheen, who is running for a third term, apparently has made up her mind on Judge Amy Coney Barrett, President Trump’s nominee to replace Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. 

“I heard some things this week in the questioning that made me very concerned. Her suggestion that Medicare might not be constitutional raised real concerns for me. So I intend to vote against Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination when she comes before the Senate,” Shaheen said during Thursday's debate on NHPR's The Exchange. (Listen to or watch the full debate here.)

Attorney and businessman Bryant "Corky" Messner, Shaheen’s Republican opponent, called Barrett a woman of high character and integrity. “She is a woman of amazing intellect and legal mind and I think she will do her job as an associate justice on the Supreme Court with an open mind, going through the judicial decision making process,” Messner said.

A committee vote on Barrett's confirmation has been scheduled for next week, with the full Senate vote scheduled for the week before the general election.

Messner, who vacationed in New Hampshire for many years and moved here permanently a few years ago from Colorado, says Americans should also have confidence in a nomination process that Democrats have decried as hurried and politically motivated. 

During the one-hour debate, the candidates accused each other of partisanship, with Shaheen claiming Messner is in “lockstep” with Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, and Messner accusing Shaheen of being beholden to progressives in the Democratic party.  They also debated health care, coronavirus relief spending, and foreign policy, among other topics.   

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As to whether Barrett should recuse herself if she is nominated and a disputed presidential election comes before the court, Shaheen raised concerns about any prior conversations Barrett may have had with President Trump.

“Was there a commitment that if this election is thrown in to the courts, that she would sit on that? I think that's not appropriate, given the circumstances under which she's been nominated. But I think we're going to have a big election on November the 3rd and it's not going to have to go to the courts,” Shaheen said.

President Trump has made unfounded charges questioning the integrity of write-in voting and has refused to commit to a peaceful transfer of power if he loses the election.

Coronavirus Relief Spending

On how coronavirus relief spending could have better addressed inequities exposed by the pandemic, Messner said the government should have taken a more targeted approach with the relief. He accused Shaheen and fellow Democrats of not moving swiftly enough in delivering aid, causing some small businesses to fail.

“People of color and people in the inner cities were harmed more because of that delay," he said. "We need to target our spending. We need to go and help people who need help.”

Shaheen, meanwhile, blamed Republicans for not agreeing to additional family medical leave “for those essential workers, many in minority communities, who felt like they had to go to work because they couldn't support their families, because they were not able to stay home from their essential jobs.”

Shaheen also said any future relief packages should be better targeted to “many minority-owned businesses, women-owned businesses that have had trouble getting help that they need in the pandemic."

As a Washington Post investigationfound, many grants and loans included in prior economic relief packages went to the wealthy, as well as to companies that laid off workers. Individuals received about one-fifth of the aid, the Post found.

Messner called on Shaheen and Democrats to pass a $500 billion relief package that has been proposed by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

“We should get money now to people who need it, then we can talk about additional money. It doesn't have to all come at once, but to allow people to continue to suffer, to allow small businesses to continue to suffer, to hold out for more when you can do the packages in phases and be more targeted is the way to go. The idea that you let people suffer in order to get negotiating leverage makes no sense,” he said.

But Shaheen said a larger package is needed.  “I think we need to get back to the table and negotiate,” she said. “I think we need a package that's going to address the challenges that we're hearing from small businesses who are worried about getting through this winter, but also from hospitals."

There’s been much back and forth over various relief proposals in recent months, with President Trump also weighing in occasionally and urging Congress to provide relief. The House passed a $2.2 trillion bill that has stalled.

As to whether there should have been a more centralized response to the pandemic, Messner defended the Trump Administration’s approach, which left much of the responsibility to the states.  Shaheen disagreed. “We have not had a plan from the Trump administration from the beginning of this coronavirus pandemic,” she said.

Health Insurance and the Affordable Care Act

Messner said he supports many of the concepts addressed by the Affordable Care Act, including coverage for pre-existing conditions, Medicaid expansion, and coverage for children until the age of 26.

“Now the question becomes, who do you want to control your health insurance and health care, the government? Or do you want it to be yourself and your doctor and your family? We need to have market-based health insurance,” he said.

As for replacing the ACA, Messner said that if elected he would propose laws that protect people with pre-existing conditions, bring transparency to the system, and encourage health insurance companies to conduct business across state lines.

Shaheen wants to see improvements to the existing law, rather than the Medicare for All plan proposed by some Democrats in Congress.

“We need to have a public option or allow people to buy into Medicare or Medicaid so that they can get health insurance at a cost they can afford," she said. "And that's the challenge when people have preexisting conditions. If you force the insurance companies to cover them, the insurance companies are just going to raise the rates.”

Republicans, Shaheen said, had plenty of opportunity to replace the Affordable Care Act while in power but failed to do so.

Foreign Policy, National Security Threats

Shaheen said Russia is this country’s biggest national security threat in the short term. But the biggest long-term threat is China, she said. 

“And China is both an economic threat and a military threat as they continue to militarize, to take very robust action in the South China seas. That affects the not just the United States, but the rest of the world," she said. "They have very expansive economic and diplomatic policy. Their belt and road initiative, which says they're providing economic aid across Southeast Asia and even into Europe - we have not countered that in the way that we should.”

Messner said China is this country’s primary threat and he blamed the Obama administration for allowing the country to gain power and prestige. “They want to dominate the world economically and militarily, and we can no longer be their research and development arm. We cannot allow them to steal our intellectual property anymore,” Messner said.

Climate Change

Messner said businesses can play a major role in helping to solve the problem of climate change and that the regulatory approach “ultimately does more harm than good.”

“Look at what Tesla has done with the electric car market. It has caused the major automotive manufacturers to more aggressively pursue manufacturing electric cars. There are opportunities in alternative fuels that can help the environment – wind power, solar power, and the market ought to be unleashed to solve those problems,” he said. 

Shaheen, who has called climate change an “existential threat,” said she is not opposed to all fracking – a process Vice President Joe Biden and Democratic nominee for President has said he would not immediately ban. Opponents of fracking say the process poses risks to air and water quality. 

Shaheen, who has worked for many years on energy efficiency proposals that have yet to pass, said there is now a bipartisan coalition in the U.S. Senate to address climate change - a caucus that includes four Democrats and four Republicans.  She said the caucus is considering legislation that can both improve the environment and help create jobs.

Criminal Justice Reform and Race

Senator Shaheen explained her opposition to ending qualified immunity, a legal provision that opponents say makes it harder for citizens to sue police for damages.  Police groups have defended the provision and raised concerns that eliminating it would make it hard to recruit new officers.  Shaheen said she is hoping for some common ground on the issue.

“We need accountability for law enforcement," she said. "And I think there are some things we ought to be able to agree on, like elimination of chokeholds and accreditation for our police departments and ensuring that all police officers wear body cams. That's the direction that our state commission has gone in. I think that's an important way to start,” she said.  

Messner said the kind of criminal justice reform that New Hampshire has recently adopted should be handled by states rather than the federal government.

On gun policy, Messner said he opposed so-called red flag laws or extreme risk protection orders, which allow law enforcement and sometimes family members and others to petition a judge to remove guns from individuals deemed a threat to themselves or others.  These laws have been shown to have a measurable effect in reducing suicides.

“I think our Second Amendment is a civil liberty. And I support the Second Amendment. I support the right to keep and bear arms. I support the Heller decision that the Supreme Court made. And so I would not support red flag laws,” he said.

Shaheen said the country is losing too many people to gun violence. “We can pass common sense laws that help save lives but protect the Second Amendment, which is what I support. And one of the things we know that works is background checks, comprehensive background checks. We almost passed it after the Newtown shooting. We need to do that,” she said.

Watch the full debate:

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