U.S. Rep. Tammy Duckworth (D-IL,8) was at the University of Illinois at Chicago Wednesday morning to talk with students about higher education and college affordability.
"I can't think of something more important as an investment to our nation than making sure that we make college affordable, and that we get to a point where students are not starting off life with tremendous amounts of student loan debt," Duckworth told reporters after the town hall.
The event, sponsored by UIC student organizations and Young Invincibles Action, was supposed to be a candidate forum, but Kirk declined to participate, Duckworth said.
The congresswoman used the event to detail college affordability proposals she is sponsoring in the U.S. House, namely the "In the Red Act." The proposal would adjust Pell Grants for inflation, allow borrowers to refinance student debt at lower interest rates and provide students with two years of tuition-free community college.
The bill would be financed by closing "special interest loopholes," including a provision in current corporate tax law that lets businesses deduct unlimited amounts from their federal income taxes for costs associated with performance-based executive pay.
The closure of that loophole would generate $60 billion over 10 years to pay for the free community college program, Duckworth said, calling the proposal "common sense."
For his part, Kirk has described the free community college proposal as an entitlement program and has raised concerns over its price tag.
Duckworth pushed back on Kirk's position.
"When I talk about this at the Chicago Tribune editorial board just last week, and when I talk about free community college, free technical training programs, he referred to them as giveaways and yet another entitlement program," she said. "He could not be more wrong."
Investing in education is a matter of national security, Duckworth went on to argue.
"This is a national security issue. This is an issue of national strength. This is an infrastructure issue for this nation," the congresswoman said. "If we don't invest in our infrastructure -- whether it's roads, or rails, or our public education and affordable college education -- then we are leaving ourselves behind on a global stage."
Duckworth's appearance at UIC came on the heels of a new ad from the Kirk campaign attacking her on Veterans Affairs issues. The ad, bankrolled by the National Republican Senatorial Committee and released on Monday, includes two whistleblowers from Edward Hines Jr. VA Hospital who claim Duckworth reacted to concerns about veterans' care with "avoidance and denial" during her time as a congresswoman.
"Veterans dying, but Duckworth said nothing could be done," the narrator says in the ad. "Tammy put political ambition before our veterans. That's shameful."
The Duckworth camp has previously said that she "doggedly pursued" whistleblower reports by "helping launch a VA Office of Inspector General investigation" into the claims "and a separate review by the U.S. Office of Special Counsel."
Duckworth responded to the attack ad after today's town hall.
"Look, veterans are my life's work. From the day my buddies saved my life in Iraq, I've woken up every single day dedicated to taking care of veterans and doing my best for veterans," she told reporters. "I'm not gonna let people who make political commercials, who have obviously a very partisan agenda, try to derail my work for veterans. And bottom line: I get my health care at Hines."
The Kirk campaign has hammered Duckworth on VA issues throughout the campaign.
"Mark Kirk has nothing else," Duckworth said of Kirk's attacks against her. "He voted against allowing students to refinance student loan debt. He voted to support companies that send jobs overseas. He called the Paycheck Fairness Act the 'most sexist legislation' ever. He doesn't want women to get equal pay for equal work. When you look at a man who's not been good for this state or this country, you're looking at Mark Kirk. So he's got nothing else. All he's got is attempts to tear down my record."