INDIANOLA, Iowa — In the first debate showdown in the pivotal Iowa U.S. Senate race, Rep. Bruce Braley and state Sen. Joni Ernst butted heads over the thorny issue of immigration — and the definition of “amnesty.”
Mr. Braley, a Democrat, said that Congress has missed an opportunity to fix what he called the nation’s broken immigration system, because House Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, has refused to take up a bill that passed the Senate with the support of Republican Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Marco Rubio of Florida.
“Will you join John McCain and Marco Rubio in calling on Speaker Boehner to bring this immigration bill to the floor of the House so we can pass it?” Mr. Braley asked Mrs. Ernst.
Mrs. Ernst, a Republican, said that Congress should “secure the border,” “enforce the laws on the books” and then move to “modernize” the legal immigration system.
She said, “I don’t support amnesty” and said she is opposed to President Obama taking executive action to “grant amnesty” — which some conservatives fear he will do after the 2014 mid-term elections.
“I do support bringing a lot of these illegal immigrants forward, but not granting them amnesty,” she said. “We have 5 million people waiting in line right now to receive U.S. citizenship and we need to honor that commitment to those people.”
Mr. Braley shot back that “Sen. Rubio and Sen. McCain did not vote for amnesty” by supporting the Senate immigration bill, which would grant quick legal status to most illegal immigrants and create a new specific pathway that would let most illegal immigrants get citizenship in about 13 years.
“Amnesty is when you break the law and there are no consequences,” Mr. Braley said. “That’s why they voted for this bill. It has real serious tough consequences including an admission that you broke the law.”
After the debate, the Ernst campaign clarified that the candidate believes the Senate immigration bill amounts to “amnesty.”
The spat over immigration came during an hourlong debate here at Simpson College, where the candidates attacked each other’s records and sparred over raising the eligibility age for Social Security, increasing the federal minimum wage and whether Obamacare can be fixed.
Mr. Braley painted Ms. Ernst as a tea party obstructionist who would have teamed up with likes of Sen. Ted Cruz when he was blamed for shutting down the federal government.
Mr. Braley called himself a “bridge builder,” not a “bridge burner.”
Ms. Ernst ridiculed the idea that Mr. Braley was bipartisan, bringing up a feud that erupted with his neighbor earlier this year over chickens.
“Congressman, you threatened to sue a neighbor over chickens that came onto their property,” she said. “You’re talking about bipartisanship, how do we expect as Iowans to believe that you will work across the aisle when you can’t walk across your yard?”
She also played up her Iowa roots, saying she is a mother and a soldier, alluding to her military experience as a lieutenant colonel in the Iowa National Guard.
The debate was sponsored by the Des Moines Register and KCCI-TV. The candidates are scheduled to face off twice next month.
With 36 days to go before Election Day, Mr. Braley and Mrs. Ernst are locked in one of about ten races that could determine whether Republicans can pick up the six seats net they need to seize control of the Senate during the final two years of the Obama administration.
The Des Moines Register released a poll over the weekend that showed Mrs. Ernst had opened up a 6-percentage-point lead over Mr. Braley.