Politics

Grassley Can't Escape Supreme Court Debate

Iowa senator faced questions at town hall meetings back home

Republican Sen. Charles Grassley is greeted by actor John Robinson dressed as Benjamin Franklin as he arrives at a town hall meeting in Ocheyedan, Iowa. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

ROCK RAPIDS, Iowa -- Sen. Charles E. Grassley can’t seem to escape the debate over the Supreme Court nominee.  

Back in Iowa for recess Monday, he faced 19 questions at two town hall meetings and a televised speech from Democratic hopeful Hillary Clinton calling him out for his unwillingness to give President Barack Obama’s nominee, Merrick Garland, a hearing or a vote.  

Then there was that pesky Ben Franklin, a protester dressed like the Founding Father and following Grassley to events, urging the senator to "do your job."  

The notion that he wasn't doing his job appeared to bother Grassley, now in his 36th-straight year of holding meetings in all 99 Iowa counties.  

“I’d like to just say about ‘Do Your Job:’ I get to the office at 6:15 in the morning, leave about 7 at night," the Iowa Republican said Monday as he continued his swing through each county, known as the full Grassley. "We’ve had 2,000 senators in 230 years. I have the longest voting record of any senator, not missing a vote in 22 years and six months.”  

That sort of irritation is what liberal grassroots organizers likely hoped for in planning the dozens of events across the country directed at Republican senators home for recess.  

As head of the Senate Judiciary Committee and a senator proud of his long service, Grassley is a chief target in the campaign to secure a hearing for Garland, the chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.  

Grassley and other GOP leaders have said the next president should choose the replacement for Justice Antonin Scalia, who died in February. Some Republicans have started to waver, though, with Illinois Sen. Mark S. Kirk planning to meet Garland on Tuesday and others calling for a hearing.  

Over the course of two, hour-long town hall meetings in northwest Iowa Monday, Grassley faced various questions on the standoff.  

Many came from constituents asking him to explain his position, or reconsider it. But, as attendees at both meetings remarked, some of those constituents were not exactly from northwest Iowa.  

“I think it's the first time I’ve come when there are so many people here that are not from here," one man at a town hall at a senior center in the town of Ocheydan told Grassley.  

Liberal groups, including Planned Parenthood, NARAL Pro-Choice America, Progress Iowa, and Americans United for Change, organized Iowans to attend the town halls.  

Some of those Iowans noted during the meetings that Grassley's only public events of the two-week Easter recess were in northwest Iowa, a conservative part of the state, so they had to travel to make their case in person.  

The group Why Courts Matter even organized a "Where is Chuck?" hotline to gather information on some of Grassley's county meetings that were not open to the public.  

Robinson, right, asks Grassley a question. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
John Robinson of Des Moines, right, asks Grassley a question. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

One of those Iowans, John Robinson of Des Moines, a member of NARAL, came to both town halls dressed as Ben Franklin to make the point that the Founding Fathers would not approve of a lengthy vacancy on the high court.  

The 40-year-old said in an interview that he is an independent who has voted for Grassley in the past, but not this year.  

“I think Grassley in the past has taken time to carefully weigh issues before, and I respect that about him," Robinson said. "And I think if he’s just going to purely side along party lines to obstruct this from going forward, I’m going to have to reconsider.”  

Grassley faces a candidate who Democrats say is a worthy opponent, and not just because of her last name. After Republicans dug in on their Supreme Court position, former Lt. Gov. Patty Judge announced she would run against Grassley, charging that he is not doing his job.  

But conservatives at the town hall meetings were confident the issue wouldn't hurt Grassley's chances of being elected to a seventh Senate term in November.  

"The people of Iowa know Chuck Grassley," said Cody Hoefert, a           38-year-old chiropractor from Rock Rapids. "They know who they’re interacting with and what kind of leader they have in the United States Senate. So I have absolutely zero concerns about this affecting Chuck Grassley.”  

With the general election about seven months away, the people of Iowa are currently closely watching the Supreme Court standoff, with several town hall attendees noting it's a frequent topic of discussion. Even as Grassley addressed a meeting in the basement of the Rock Rapids Public Library, two librarians upstairs were overheard debating the issue.  

Several of those who attended the town halls said the issue at stake is the balance of the court. Scalia's death left the bench evenly divided, with four justices appointed by Republican presidents and four appointed by Democrats.  

"We don’t need another liberal Supreme Court justice," said Tammy Kobza, the pro-family Iowa Eagle Forum's state director from Sioux County. She arrived at the senior center in Ocheyden clutching a book on the Supreme Court authored by Eagle Forum founder Phyllis Schlafly called "The Supremacists."  

Kevin, an older man from Ocheydan, also pointed to the balance of the court when explaining his support for Grassley's position. At one point during the meeting he grew frustrated with the constant questions and loudly said, "He's doing his job," as one Iowan asked yet again about the Supreme Court.  

"I think everybody has a right to have their opinion and ask their question," said Kevin, who declined to give his last name. "But when it’s been asked and answered, I think it’s time to move on so that they’re not just hassling him on the one point."  

At the two meetings, Grassley enjoyed support from conservatives in the room. At the library, one woman stood to urge him to maintain his farmer's "nerves of steel" and "stand firm" on his position, drawing applause from the packed room.  

But Grassley did face skepticism from some constituents not associated with the liberal groups. One woman questioned whether the GOP position was giving Democrats fodder to paint Republicans as obstructionists, to which Grassley responded that the Senate should spend its time on issues with bipartisan support.  

Randy Waagmeester, a 62-year-old lawyer from Rock Rapids who said he is an independent, urged Grassley to reconsider his position, arguing that the court should not be mired in politics. Waagmeester suggested Grassley was following Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's lead in declaring that Garland wouldn't receive a hearing or vote.  

Waagmeester pointed out that shortly after news broke of Scalia's death, Grassley told the Des Moines Register that he was not going to comment on how to handle the president's nominee. But, just after 6:15 p.m. that night, McConnell issued his statement that the Senate would give the American people a voice on the direction of the court, and leave the nomination to the next president. Almost exactly one hour later, Grassley issued a statement saying it would make sense to "defer to the American people."  

Grassley said Monday that he did not speak with McConnell until five days after Scalia's death. "So I have been accused directly to my face of doing it because it was Mitch McConnell’s position," Grassley said at the Monday town hall. "But we arrived at our positions separately.”  

After his response to Waagmeester, one disgruntled attendee in the back of the room accused Grassley of not doing his job.  

“I haven’t missed a vote in 22 years, so I’m going to be on the job," Grassley said. "Next question.”  

Bill Clark contributed to this report.

Contact Bowman at  bridgetbowman@rollcall.com  and follow her on Twitter at @bridgetbhc .

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