Democrat Bob Kerrey and Republican Deb Fischer clashed over the budget, health care, Social Security and other issues in a U.S. Senate debate Friday in Omaha.
In the second of their three scheduled debates, Kerrey and Fischer drew distinctions almost from the start. In response to the first question, about unemployment, Kerrey touted a constitutional amendment to make Congress nonpartisan and end gridlock, while Fischer talked about changing direction by easing government regulations on business.
But in their rebuttals, the candidates went after each other’s previously expressed positions. Kerrey took aim at Fischer’s support for a balanced budget amendment and opposition to the so-called Buffett rule, named after Omaha investor Warren Buffett, aimed at raising tax rates on upper income individuals.
“Sen. Fischer I’ve looked at your plan. First of all, you signed the Norquist pledge which wouldn’t allow you to say to Americans…(who) generate more than a million dollars’ worth of income that you ought to pay the same tax that your employees pay. Secondly, your balanced budget amendment would at least double unemployment in the state,” Kerrey said.
Fischer disputed that. “I disagree with Mr. Kerrey on his numbers, obviously,” she said. “With regard to the Buffett rule, if you’re going to tax every millionaire that makes over a million dollars, that can run the government for 17 hours. Let’s stop with the scare tactics. Let’s look at how we’re going to help businesses create jobs.”
The disagreements continued over entitlement programs like Social Security. Kerrey has endorsed a plan that includes limiting benefits and raising taxes. Fischer stressed her opposition. “I believe that government has to honor their commitments. When promises are made, promises are kept. And we need to honor the commitments we made to our seniors, and that’s why I say – let me be clear – no one over the age of 40 should see their benefits cut or their taxes increased,” she said.
For those under 40, Fischer said, changes will have to be made. “We need to be honest with our younger citizens in this country,” she said. “They all know – you all know – that the programs you have aren’t sustainable. But if the government is honest with you, saying that things need to change, that maybe those under 40 need to look at means testing, maybe we need to look at changing the age of eligibility, then our younger citizens can make plans.”
Kerrey took issue with Fischer’s emphasis on keeping current promises. “The promises are made in order to secure the votes of people over the age of 65. That’s why they’re made,” he said. “And we keep promising. Since the Second World War we’ve been doing it. The problem is, it’s a $60 trillion unfunded liability. And the question is, are we going to solve the problem? (Or) are we going to pander to the audience one more time and ignore it?”
Kerrey also objected to limiting changes to those under 40. “She (Fischer) can talk about commitments, but the commitments don’t necessarily mean we can afford to meet those commitments. And that’s the problem. We can’t. We can’t afford it,” he said. “The question is, what are we going to do about it. And what she’s saying, basically, is that if you’re over 40, you’re not going to have to participate in the solution.”
The two also clashed over Medicare, with Fischer accusing the Obama administration and Democrats of “stealing” more than $700 billion from the program to help fund health care reform. Kerrey objected to Fischer’s choice of words. “This is what’s wrong with the political debate about what to do about Medicare. Nothing was stolen,” he declared. “That’s a decrease in reimbursement to insurance companies and hospitals. And all it did was extended the insolvency date of Medicare back eight years. Do what she wants to do? Insolvency occurs in 2016. It’s political rhetoric. Obama’s using it. Romney’s using it. They’re all out there using it.”
Fischer stood her ground. “This is stealing over $700 billion from Medicare. It is taking that reimbursement from hospitals,” she said. “And hospitals then expected to make that up. They expected to make it up because of the increase of patients that would be on government insurance. That was the deal that was made.”
On health care reform itself, Kerrey was mostly positive. “It already has decreased the cost to 300,000 Nebraskans over the age of 65 on Medicare for their prescription drugs. And it’s increased the amount of money and opportunities for them to get preventative care and preventative testing,” Kerrey said.
“But the big moment’s going to occur in 2014. (One) hundred and twenty thousand working men and women in Nebraska…anybody who makes less than 10 bucks an hour basically – 12,000 veterans and their families are in that 120,000 group – they’re going to be able to buy health insurance,” he added.
Fischer stressed her opposition. “I want to repeal the Affordable Health Care Act,” she asserted. “And I believe then we need to step forward and go on a step-by-step fashion in order to address accessibility and affordability of health care in this country.”
“We need to look at tort reform – liability reform,” she continued, adding that “a quarter of the medical procedures that are asked for are not necessary. Doctors do it because of their concern on liability.”
Kerrey and Fischer also split over abortion. Fischer said she’s pro-life, but favors allowing abortions to save the life of the mother; Kerrey said the government should not regulate women’s decisions.
On what to do about the prospect of Iran developing a nuclear weapon, the difference was mainly one of tone. Fischer faulted the Obama administration. “We need to have a strong administration who’s going to make it clear that a line needs to be drawn,” she said. “We’ve never heard from this government, we’ve never heard them say that Iran should not be enriching uranium.
“We need to make clear, if we’re going to be leaders, if the United States of America is going to be a leader in foreign policy, and keep stability in this world, as has been our mission in the past, then we need to make it clear,” Fischer added.
Kerrey stressed the possible consequences. “We can’t allow them (Iran) to acquire nuclear weapons. But you’ve got to answer the question: what happens afterwards?” he said.
“The Fifth Fleet’s in Bahrain. That’s in the Persian Gulf. They don’t call it the Persian Gulf for nothing,” he continued. “We get all worked up when we launched cruise missiles on Libya in the middle 1980s, and we’re all fired up – wasn’t that great?” Kerrey said. “And then they knocked down Pan Am (flight) 103. “What’d we do afterwards? It’s not as simple …as saying we’re just going to go in there. I believe we’ve got to draw a line. But I think we’ve got to be very conscious of what it means when we do.”
Kerrey and Fischer are schedule to meet in one more debate, Monday night at 7 central on NET.