WASHINGTON -- The new Republican Congress understands Americans' suffering from the economy, health care system and Washington gridlock and will 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 promised Tuesday.
Mixing calls for bipartisanship with a flexing of GOP muscle, freshman Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, cited Americans' worries about stagnant wages, lost jobs and canceled health care coverage. In prepared remarks, 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.
Yet Ernst also listed a parade of looming clashes with the president, including GOP efforts to force construction of the Keystone XL oil pipeline, balance the budget without raising taxes and restrict abortions.
"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 said, referring to the Obama health care overhaul that Republicans loathe. "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 under Obama in which the GOP has held House and Senate majorities. It came as Republicans hope to expand their appeal among women and minorities ahead of the 2016 presidential and congressional elections.
"We heard the message you sent in November, loud and clear," she said. "And now we're getting to work to change the direction Washington has been taking our country."
Ernst, 44, sprinkled her policy prescriptions with her personal story, recounting her youth on her family's farm in Red Oak, Iowa. She described plowing fields, working mornings at a Hardees restaurant and wearing plastic bread bags over her only pair of good shoes on rainy school days.
Tuesday's speeches came as the economy has been adding juice, 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 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.
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 Senate seat that retiring Democrat Tom Harkin had held for three decades.
Ernst gained attention for a campaign ad in which she spoke of her farm 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, backed a state law supporting personhood for fetuses and spoken of using her gun to defend herself against any government attempts to restrict her rights.
Tuesday, Ernst cited the GOP's dispute with Obama over forcing construction of the proposed Keystone pipeline from Canada to the Gulf Coast. With support from some Democrats, Republicans call the project a job creator while the White House has threatened a veto because of the environmental damage it could cause.
"President Obama will soon have a decision to make: Will he sign the bill or block good American jobs?" she said.
Ernst also said "our hearts go out" to victims of terrorism in France and elsewhere, and called on Obama to craft a comprehensive anti-terrorism plan.
While Obama spoke, the office of House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, pushed out more than a dozen emails with Republican critiques of his remarks. Using the acronyn for "State of the Union," the emails carried headlines such as "SOTU FACT: Obamacare Is Slashing Hours & Wages, & Destroying Jobs."
Iowa Sen. Ernst promises GOP focus on Americans' concerns