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On the issues: Hassan and Ayotte move toward middle to attract independent voters

  • Candidates for U.S. Senate, Democrat New Hampshire Gov. Maggie Hassan, left and incumbent Republican Sen. Kelly Ayotte listen to a question during a forum with business leaders, Tuesday, Oct. 25, 2016, in Manchester, N.H. (AP Photo/Jim Cole)

  • Candidates for U.S. Senate, Democrat New Hampshire Gov. Maggie Hassan, left and incumbent Republican Sen. Kelly Ayotteshake hands following a forum with business leaders Tuesday, Oct. 25, 2016, in Manchester,NH (AP Photo/Jim Cole)



Monitor staff
Wednesday, November 02, 2016

Republican Kelly Ayotte and Democrat Maggie Hassan don’t see eye to eye on most issues – including the first bill each would file if elected to the U.S. Senate.

Ayotte, the incumbent, said if she returns to Washington, she would focus on improving veterans health care and holding the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs officials accountable.

If Hassan makes it to the Senate, she said she would prioritize emergency federal funding for the drug crisis to fund treatment and recovery.

The women are facing off in one of the most competitive races in the country, which would tip party control of the U.S. Senate. Polls show the pair locked in a dead heat.

The first bill Ayotte would file in the new U.S. Senate is one to make permanent the Veterans Choice Card program, she said.

The card lets veterans get private care on the government’s dime if they are stuck on long waitlists or live more than 40 miles from a VA medical center. Congress funded a pilot program after reports showed veterans languished in line for care. Ayotte’s bill would also strip bonus pay from VA employees “who are guilty of misconduct.”

“When veterans return home, it’s up to us to ensure they receive a hero’s welcome that includes consistent support and access to timely and quality care,” said Ayotte, whose husband, Joe Daley, is an Iraq War veteran.

Hassan, a two-term governor, has watched drug deaths in the state soar. In the U.S. Senate, Hassan said she would push for emergency funding for addiction services to get dollars to treatment and recovery providers, law enforcement and prevention efforts.

The Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act was signed into law this year, promising a boost in services. But a companion measure submitted by Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen for roughly $600 million in emergency funding was defeated in the Republican-led U.S. Senate. New Hampshire’s drug overdose deaths have skyrocketed from 326 in 2014 to 439 last year, with a new record expected to be set in 2016.

“Emergency funding for the heroin and opioid crisis would be my first priority if elected to the United States Senate,” Hassan said in a statement.

While the candidates don’t agree on all of the issues, one thing they share: Both are rising stars in their respective political parties.

Ayotte has been the state’s top elected Republican since winning the U.S. Senate seat in 2010. Her name was floated as a possible vice presidential pick during the 2012 election. In Washington, she has carved a name for herself as a foreign policy hawk, often aligning with Arizona Sen. John McCain.

Hassan is the state’s second female governor, elected to the post after serving six years in the state Senate, including two as the Democratic majority leader. She considers Shaheen a mentor who helped get her into politics when she was advocating for her son, Ben, who has cerebral palsy.

Independent voters will likely decide the race. As a reflection of that, both women are running to the middle. Ayotte and Hassan cast themselves as bipartisan problem solvers who can work across the aisle and aren’t afraid to stand up to party leaders.

But the candidates’ stances have at times angered members of their own party.

Ayotte, who is anti-abortion, raised conservatives’ eyebrows when her campaign handed out free condoms to college students last month. And her decision to back a federal plan to cut carbon emissions in 2015 drew criticism from some Republican voters and the Koch-founded organization Americans for Prosperity.

Hassan, meanwhile, faced pushback from her party when she became the only Democratic governor out of more than two dozen nationwide to call for the U.S. to stop accepting Syrian refugees in wake of the Paris terror attacks.

The two face off in the final debate of the race on WMUR at 7 tonight. Here are some of the other issues:

Foreign policy

The pair’s major disagreement is over the Iran nuclear deal, which lifted some sanctions on the country in exchange for new limits on its nuclear program.

Ayotte has called the deal dangerous and opposes it. She wants a reauthorization of sanctions against the country.

Hassan, like many congressional Democrats, says the agreement is “imperfect” but the best way to prevent a nuclear Iran.

Ayotte was one of 47 Senate Republicans who in 2015 signed a controversial letter warning Iranian leaders that the next president could reverse any deal the country struck.

“The next president could revoke such an executive agreement with the stroke of a pen and future Congresses could modify the terms of the agreement at any time,” read the open letter, a rare intervention by senators into diplomatic efforts. The White House accused the group of undermining foreign policy.

While Ayotte has tried to paint Hassan as weak on foreign policy, the Democrat has fended off such attacks by taking a hard-line stance on national security.

Both women oppose President Obama’s plan to close the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, where most detainees are held without charges. Obama released the blueprint in February. It called for the transfer of about one-third of the remaining 91 detainees to other countries. The remainder, designated too dangerous for release, would be relocated to a new U.S. facility.

Hassan has called the plan too generalized, and said it doesn’t take security into consideration. Ayotte said the plan could allow dangerous detainees back onto the battlefield.

The women both support additional airstrikes in Syria. Hassan said she does not support the deployment of a large-scale U.S. ground force in the country.

“It would be a mistake right now to launch another large-scale ground invasion the way we did under the Bush administration,” she said in a statement. “But we need to be constantly re-evaluating the progress on the ground and ensure that we are doing what it takes to wipe ISIS off the map and protect America’s vital interests.”

Ayotte said the decision should be based on what military leaders recommend.

“The decision whether to deploy U.S. service members into harm’s way is one of the most serious decisions we confront as a nation,” she said in a statement. “It is a decision I do not support lightly or hastily, and I believe it should be based on the situation on the ground, the advice of our commanders, and our national security interests.”

Guns

In the wake of mass shootings in San Bernardino, Calif., and Orlando, Fla., Congress has debated new restrictions on gun purchases but has taken little action.

Gun policy represents one of the biggest divides between Hassan and Ayotte, who split on whether the government should expand background checks or put restrictions on certain firearms. Currently, only licensed firearm dealers have to run checks on prospective buyers.

Hassan supports Senate Democrats’ proposals to expand background checks for purchases online and at gun shows. And she has called for an “appropriate, fair assault weapons ban.” Attempts to pass such proposals have been defeated in the Republican-led U.S. Senate.

Ayotte has voted against past bills to expand background checks, saying the government should instead “fix the current system.” She supports further prosecutions of gun crimes and increasing mental health records given to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System.

Federal law prohibits people committed to a mental institution from owning a gun, but it doesn’t require states to submit that information to the NICS. New Hampshire is one of a handful of states that doesn’t submit those records.

Both women have taken actions on gun policy that have angered some constituents.

As governor, Hassan faced criticism from Second Amendment activists when she vetoed bills to remove a state license requirement needed to carry a concealed gun.

Ayotte faced criticism in 2013, when, in wake of the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, she was the only New England senator to vote against expanded background checks.

While the candidates agree the government should prevent suspected terrorists from buying guns, they’re spilt on the method.

Hassan backs Democratic proposals to limit gun sales to people on the federal terrorist watch list. Ayotte joined most Senate Republicans last December to block such a proposal, but she reversed course this summer and voted for the bill. It failed to advance.

Opponents argued the list was too broad and didn’t give due process protections to those affected.

Ayotte later signed onto a bipartisan bill restricting gun sales to people on the federal government’s no-fly list, a smaller subset of the terror watch list made up primarily of foreign nationals. Known as “No fly, no buy,” the measure has yet to get Senate approval. 

Economy

New Hampshire doesn’t have its own minimum wage and instead relies on the federal rate of $7.25 an hour. Hassan favors raising the minimum wage to $12 an hour, while Ayotte thinks the best way to increase pay is by growing the economy. The federal minimum wage was last increased in 2009, from the previous $6.55 hourly rate.

The candidates also differ on tax policy, but both are proposing major reform. Ayotte supports lowering federal business taxes by dropping the corporate and individual rates.

Hassan supports expanding the child tax credit and establishing a new $1,000 tax break for middle-class families making less than $200,000. She would pay for it by cutting off tax subsidies enjoyed by major oil companies, a proposal that has been blocked in the past by Senate Republicans.

The women support different versions of a bill meant to close the gender pay gap. Hassan backs a Democratic proposal known as the Paycheck Fairness Act, which would let female workers in certain cases sue for salary discrimination.

Ayotte submitted her own plan to address pay equity last year that bars employer retaliation against workers who discuss their wages and those who decide not disclose salary history. Ayotte’s bill, known as the Gender Advancement in Pay Act, doesn’t go as far as the Democratic bill.

Health care

Ayotte has voted to repeal the Affordable Care Act and calls it unaffordable for many New Hampshire families. She has said she wants to restore and expand health savings accounts and double flexible spending accounts, which let people save their money tax free to cover health care costs.

Hassan says the federal government should “build on the progress” of the Affordable Care Act because it has allowed people to get insurance coverage who have preexisting conditions. She supports repealing the medical device tax.

Hassan supports federal funding for Planned Parenthood, a health care and abortion provider that runs five clinics in New Hampshire. Ayotte has voted to block federal funding for Planned Parenthood. Ayotte has sponsored a bill to make birth control available without a prescription, but the legislation came under fire from Democrats who say it undermines rules that mandate insurance coverage of contraception. Ayotte disputes the claim.

Environment

Both candidates oppose a carbon tax and support the Environmental Protection Agency plan to cut carbon emissions.

Ayotte supports energy efficiency and further research into renewables, like solar power storage. She believes in an “all of the above” energy approach, which relies on renewable energy and on fossil fuels.

Ayotte, along with most Senate Republicans, supported the Keystone XL pipeline, which was rejected by Obama in 2015.

Hassan has advocated for ending federal tax subsidies for major oil companies, investing in “green-energy technology” and creating a national model rule for net metering, which lets homeowners sell their excess solar power to electric companies.

The women differ on Northern Pass, a controversial transmission line set to run through New Hampshire. Ayotte has called for full burial of the project, set to run overhead for about two-thirds of the 192-mile line. Hassan said she supports additional burial. But she thinks blasting required for undergrounding in some areas could be more environmentally damaging than putting the line overhead.

Social Securityand Medicare

Hassan pledges to fight efforts to privatize or cut Social Security, which is expected to become insolvent within 20 years. Hassan is open to adjusting the payroll tax cap so wealthier citizens pay more into the system. She hasn’t been specific about how much the threshold should be raised.

Ayotte has said she supports a bipartisan solution on Social Security that maintains benefits for the retired and preserves the program for generations to come. The Republican is open to so-called means testing, or reducing benefits to high-income participants, but said she doesn’t have any specific numbers in mind. She has also voiced support for adjusting the payroll tax cap, but hasn’t been specific about the threshold.

(Allie Morris can be reached at 369-3307 or amorris@cmonitor.com.)