- Associated Press - Thursday, October 30, 2014

The Associated Press invited Sen. Al Franken and his GOP challenger, Mike McFadden, to respond to several questions ahead of the Nov. 4 election. Here are their verbatim answers.

What’s the most pressing problem/concern in the Affordable Care Act, and how should it be addressed?

Al Franken:I support the health care reform law and I’m working hard to make sure it works for all Minnesotans. Repealing the law would take us back to a time when women were charged more than men simply because they are women, when insurance companies could deny coverage for people with pre-existing conditions, remove young adults from their parents’ health plan and drop coverage for Americans who become sick because they’ve hit their lifetime caps. Because of the Affordable Care Act, the state’s uninsured rate has been cut by more than 40 percent, and 95 percent of Minnesotans now have health insurance. I’ve also been working hard to make sure the Affordable Care Act works for all Minnesotans. I’ve fought the medical device tax since it was first proposed, and although I was able to get the original proposal cut in half, I’ll keep fighting until it’s fully repealed. I have also introduced legislation to make sure more families who need help buying their health insurance can get the tax credits they need, and I have a bipartisan bill that would help support businesses and labor unions who provide their own insurance to their employees and members.

Mike McFadden: Obamacare was built and sold on a number of mistruths. The first was President Obama’s promise that people who liked their plan and their doctor could keep them. With at least 164,000 Minnesotans having lost their plan, this just isn’t true. Now, Minnesotans are realizing the untruth of Senator Franken and President Obama’s second promise: that Obamacare would make health care and insurance more affordable. Minnesotans are facing more expensive health insurance costs because of rising premiums. Individuals who bought insurance on MNsure, Minnesota’s Obamacare exchange, faced average premium increases of 18-37 percent. That doesn’t include the 60 percent of MNsure customers who had plans on PreferredOne, whose rates are rising 63 percent. Small businesses are also being hit by double-digit rate increases, putting small business owners in the terrible position of having to decide whether or not to close doors or stop providing insurance to their employees. Health insurance is growing more and more expensive for Minnesotans. I have put forward a set of health care proposals to lower costs, improve access and increase quality of care. To lower costs, I have advocated for greater price transparency, an expansion of Health Savings Accounts, allowing individuals to buy insurance and small businesses to pool insurance across state lines, and health care tax and tort reform. Senator Franken has admitted that Obamacare has problems, but he has put forward no ideas for solutions. I will sit down with leaders from both parties and implement real solutions.

What steps should our government take to help resolve the Ebola crisis worldwide, and protect U.S. citizens at home?

Franken: I’ve been doing everything I can to make sure the people of Minnesota are protected from this virus. I’ve been meeting with Governor Dayton and Senator Klobuchar to discuss Minnesota’s preparedness, and I joined them in pushing the administration to boost Ebola screenings at MSP. And I strongly support the strong protocols that Gov. Dayton recently announced to protect Minnesotans from Ebola. I’ve kept in touch with Minnesota health care providers to make sure they have what they need from the federal government, and I backed legislation that passed into law last month to increase funding for Ebola preparedness efforts by nearly $90 million in the United States and West Africa. I will continue to work closely with Gov. Dayton and Minnesota health professionals to make sure that the state and federal government are doing everything possible to keep Minnesota safe.

McFadden: Ebola is a serious disease and national security threat which demands the utmost attention, organization, and leadership from our government. Throughout Senator Franken and President Obama’s tenure, we have seen the world become a more dangerous place. Whether to address the threat of ISIS abroad and homegrown terror here in Minnesota, or the crisis of Ebola, we need leaders who can act decisively and effectively. I believe we need a travel ban from West Africa which allows health care workers to re-enter the country after a 21-day quarantine. In the past, I have called for increased airport and follow-up screenings, which I was pleased to see the nation enact, though not before Thomas Eric Duncan entered the United States or Amber Vinson was allowed to fly commercially with a fever. I also called for President Obama to appoint an Ebola czar. I was disappointed to see that the person he chose to appoint was a political operative, not a public health expert, and that the czar is now reporting to Susan Rice, not the President himself. The response to this crisis has been wrought with errors and demonstrates the lack of leadership in this administration. As I have travelled around the state, many Minnesotans have expressed to me that they do not trust this administration to keep them safe. I believe that ensuring the security of citizens is the number one role of the federal government, and that we need new leadership in Washington to put people over politics.

You and your opponent have said there is too much money in politics. How should that be changed?

Franken: Citizens United was a terrible decision, and when it was decided 5-4, that opened up the spigots for corporations and other entities to start putting a lot of undisclosed money into elections. That’s one of the awful things about the decision. I cosponsored the DISCLOSE ACT, which was first introduced right after the court made their ruling. The bill would require disclosure about where donations come from. The bottom line is that we need to get big money out of politics, which is why I’ve also introduced a constitutional amendment that would undo the harm Citizens United has done to our democracy.

McFadden: I have not run for office before - something that I am proud of - and I have been struck throughout this process by the amount of money in politics. I am running against Senator Al Franken, one of the top Democratic fundraisers, who has raised over $22 million to date. Millions of these dollars have gone toward patently false television ads attacking me. This is wrong, and the system should be changed. I am a strong believer in First Amendment rights, and believe that Senator Franken’s efforts regarding Citizens United are an attempt to simply treat corporations with greater restrictions than unions. This misses the point. I support increased transparency in campaign finance. We need stronger disclosure standards so that people or corporations cannot give money in secret. I also believe that candidates should have to file their records electronically, so that the public is able to easily access information on campaign donations. The excess of money in politics allows candidates like Senator Franken to distract from the issues and the truth by financing and broadcasting misleading attacks. Minnesotans deserve better than that. They deserve an honest debate between candidates with differing visions for the future of the state and the nation.

What’s the best way to shore up the federal highway trust fund for infrastructure repairs?

Franken: Infrastructure investments are key to building prosperity in Minnesota - and the U.S. And they always have been, going back to when the Erie Canal opened up Midwest agriculture and timber to European markets. Our economy depends on that infrastructure as much as it ever has, but we’re not investing enough to maintain what we have, like our roads and bridges, much less expand to remain globally competitive. I’ve been pushing for Congress to pass a long-term transportation bill since I came to Washington. I don’t support raising the gas tax. Minnesota’s families are already paying too much for gas, and we shouldn’t increase that burden on them. Instead we should pay for more highway infrastructure by making smart cuts, like ending subsidies to big oil companies. They’re extremely profitable and don’t need our help, and we can use that money to fix our roads and bridges.

McFadden: Funding interstate infrastructure and supporting state-level infrastructure projects is a critical role of the federal governments. Not only do all Americans rely on infrastructure for transportation, but a robust infrastructure also facilitates economic growth. A gas tax is not a long-term solution for the underfunded highway trust fund. As cars continue to develop to be more fuel-efficient, the gas tax will continue to be unsustainable. I support comprehensive tax and spending reform to balance the budget. Part of that process will be establishing a more stable and long-term source of funding for infrastructure, which will mean making infrastructure spending a budgetary priority. I also believe that there is room for efficiency gains in the way that we finance infrastructure projects. Public-private partnerships, for example, could facilitate better and more cost-effective infrastructure projects.

Do you support giving children of immigrants who came to the United States illegally a pathway to citizenship? Why or why not?

Franken: I was proud to support the Senate’s comprehensive immigration reform bill that passed the Senate. And I look forward to continuing to work to get comprehensive immigration reform enacted into law that contains a tough but fair pathway to citizenship. I worked hard to get in my amendment to protect children whose parents are caught up in immigration raids by allowing parents to arrange care for their children, and ensuring the children are kept informed about where their parents are and another amendment to ensure that unaccompanied children have legal representation. I also worked to improve the E-verify system so that it doesn’t hurt small businesses. The bill would also significantly bolster border security. I’ve also been a proud supporter of the DREAM Act, which would allow children whose parents came to this country illegally to come out of the shadows of society to study, work, or serve in our country’s military. There are any number of reasons why we should help them. One is that it’s the smart thing to do. But, more importantly, it’s the right thing to do. These are children, and we need to help them. They’ve learned in our schools, played with our kids, and the only thing they’re asking for is the opportunity to work hard for our country. We just need to give them that chance.

McFadden: We need to address our immigration problem. Washington has kicked the can down the road for 15 years rather than sit down and come up with a solution. I do not support amnesty, but doing nothing is de facto amnesty. We need balance. I don’t want to tear families apart, but we do have individuals here who have broken the law. I support an immigration solution that will first and foremost secure the border. After securing the border, reform should require that people who are already in the United States pass a background check, learn English if they do not already know it, pay a fine, and demonstrate employment before they can go to the back of the line for citizenship, during which time they would not receive government benefits. We need a 21st century immigration policy that helps our economy grow while handling our immigration challenges.

Where would you vote to set the federal government’s minimum wage and why?

Al Franken: I believe that no Minnesotan, and no American, should work full-time 40 hours a week and live in poverty, but that’s exactly what’s happening across our country. Minnesota took a historic step earlier this year and raised our state’s minimum wage above the federal minimum. I strongly supported raising Minnesota’s minimum wage, and I believe we need to raise it to $10.10 at the federal level and adjust it for inflation.

Mike McFadden: I believe that the federal minimum wage is an important safeguard and that a federal minimum wage should remain in place. However, I believe that increases in the minimum wage should be left up to the states at this point. What is a necessary minimum wage in California or New York is not going to be the same as what is necessary in Georgia or Minnesota. The minimum wage should be a stepping stone. In the immediate term, we need to get our economy back on the path of growth and prosperity to give Minnesotans more opportunity to find good paying jobs. In the long term, I believe the most important tool to combat poverty is education. Minneapolis has one of the worst achievement gaps in the country. I believe there should be moral outrage on this point. Every child deserves a first class education, regardless of their ZIP code. I have been involved with an inner-city school, Cristo Rey, which serves economically disadvantaged students. We have been able to achieve powerful results. In the Senate, I will fight for students across the country, aiming to close the achievement gap and increase opportunity.

If expanded targeted bombing and the training of Syrian rebels does not stop the Islamic State group, what should the U.S. do next?

Al Franken: ISIL is an absolutely barbaric group. They are a threat to the region and to the United States. That’s why I supported targeted airstrikes against ISIL in Iraq and in Syria, and it’s why I voted to train and arm some of the Syrian rebels. We need to do everything we can to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL, and to make sure that that nobody from this organization can make it back to the United States to threaten us here at home. Many other governments in the region despise ISIL and view it as a serious threat. We need to continue building the international coalition against ISIL, and other governments in the region need to step up and do their part to degrade and ultimately destroy this evil organization.

Mike McFadden: I support the targeted airstrikes in Iraq and Syria to combat ISIS. ISIS is a dangerous threat which has already violently taken the lives of Americans. I believe that decisions on future military strategy would likely be dependent on the precise situation. I hold strict criteria for deploying American troops. I believe that in order to deploy American troops, we must have 1) a mission with a clear and limited scope, 2) an exit strategy and an expectation of duration, 3) metrics for success and sufficient force to guarantee success. I do not believe conditions (2) and (3) have been met with regards to combatting ISIS. We also must ensure that recruits from America and elsewhere are not joining and fueling ISIS and other terror organizations. Minnesota is a hotbed for jihadist recruitment. Over a dozen Minnesotans have left to support ISIS. Recruitment has been happening in Minnesota since 2007, with Minnesotans leaving to fight for al Shabab. During this time, Senator Franken has sat on the Judiciary Committee, failing to address the challenge and threat of homegrown terror. I have put forward a proposal to revoke the passports of individuals who have left to support terror groups so that they cannot return to harm the U.S. or travel to our ally countries. I also support efforts for improved education and jobs programs, as well as local law enforcement partnerships in at-risk communities.

Do you believe the NSA’s mass data collection should be allowed to continue? Where do you draw the line on government surveillance?

Al Franken: The government has to give proper weight to both keeping Americans safe and protecting their privacy. But the public can’t know if we’re striking that balance if they don’t have even the most basic information about major surveillance programs. That’s why I strongly support the Senate’s version of the USA Freedom Act, which would bring major reforms to these government surveillance programs. I wrote the bill’s key transparency provisions with my Republican colleague, Senator Dean Heller of Nevada. Those provisions are based on our Surveillance Transparency Act. The administration has committed to end the bulk collection of Americans’ data, and the Senate has written a bill to ban that practice. My transparency provisions require unprecedented transparency and accountability, and without them, Americans will have no way to really know if the government is living up to those promises. That is how we can make sure Americans can decide for themselves whether the government is striking the right balance between privacy and security.

Mike McFadden: I do not support the mass and blanket collection of phone and Internet data. Privacy and security are in a difficult balance. It is the most important role of government to protect its citizens, and as we’re seeing with the spread of domestic terror threats, data can be important in that process. However, it is also critical that the government continue to protect American citizens’ civil liberties. With the mass collection programs, I believe that the NSA crossed a line and went too far. Senator Franken sat as the chairman of the Senate’s privacy subcommittee while these programs were perpetuated. He failed to protect Minnesotans from the government’s ability to collect data on them without their knowledge or consent.

Are you concerned about climate change? If so, what steps can Congress take to help?

Al Franken: Climate change is real and I’m working to address this serious threat in the Senate. We must keep fighting for clean energy and energy efficient technology that will create jobs, reduce our dependence on foreign oil and help combat global climate change. Working with Minnesota producers and energy businesses, I helped write the energy section of the Farm Bill, which invests in renewable technology like wind energy, advanced biofuels, and in energy efficiency. That benefits Minnesota - not the big oil companies. I’ve been using my Chairmanship of the Energy Subcommittee to push for energy efficiency and renewable energy investments, and for more research and development dollars for clean energy. This is going to be a multi-trillion dollar industry and I want us to lead it. When it comes to energy policy, talk is cheap. I’ve rolled up my sleeves, and fought successfully to get the Wind Production Tax Credit and the Biodiesel Tax Credit extended, and I’m going to fight to get them extended again.

Mike McFadden: All Minnesotans care about being good stewards for our lakes and forests. I believe that climate change is real and that it poses an important long-term challenge for our globe. However, politicians have created a false choice between the environment and our economy. I believe in smart regulation, not overregulation. The state of Minnesota has some of the toughest environmental regulations in the world, and it is important that we continue to ensure that new projects and objectives meet those requirements. The federal government can play a role in expanding the range of energy options so that we can develop cleaner and smarter alternatives. This can be done in a way which boosts, not hurts, the current economy. For example, I am a strong supporter of renewable energies, which have proven to be important for Minnesota’s agricultural economy. In the Senate, I will advocate for continued support for these energies. I believe the government also has a role to play in supporting further research and design for new energy technologies.

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