By Dustin Hurst | Watchdog.org
BIG SKY — Montanans expected the first debate among Democratic U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, Republican U.S. House Rep. Denny Rehberg and Libertarian Dan Cox to be a dicey affair and it lived up to — if not exceeded — the hype.
Rehberg, seeking to knock Tester out of the U.S. Senate in November, took the first swipe at the incumbent during opening remarks Saturday here, saying the Democrat’s spending policies are bad for the economy.
“Nobody feels good about the direction the country is taking,” Rehberg said. “We’ve got to get ourselves out of this recession.”
The Republican congressman made job creation and recovery the theme of Saturday’s debate, and slammed Tester for supporting Democratic policies that enlarged the national debt and enabled out-of-control spending.
Tester countered early and often, saying his Senate votes helped those who need affordable health-care coverage and supported care of veterans.
When debate moderators pressed the candidates on health reform, Tester said the 2010 Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act isn’t perfect legislation, but it is an an important first step toward holding insurance companies and providers accountable for costs.
“Our old health-care system was broken,” the incumbent senator said. “It didn’t work. It drove people into poverty.”
Rehberg, again tapping the jobs theme, called the law “job-killing,” and a measure that would place onerous burdens on small businesses.
To improve health care, the congressman said the government should explore pooling, so small businesses can join forces in purchasing health insurance to obtain better rates. While small businesses can purchase small group coverage now, no law and nothing in the federal health-care reform allows them to pool to reduce health coverage premiums.
Additionally, he added, medical tort reform should be explored, a tenet he felt was excluded from the 2010 reforms as a political favor.
“It was a payoff to the trial lawyers,” Rehberg said, adding that defensive medicine costs the country untold sums annually.
“It’s not the lawsuit, it’s the fear of the lawsuit.”
Tester countered, saying it would be unacceptable to repeal a health-care law that has created access to millions of previously uninsured Americans and allows those with pre-existing conditions to purchase insurance unrestrained.
Cox said the government simply needs to remove itself from medicine and let the free market correct the system.
“What aren’t we going to let the government take over?” he pondered, adding that government intrusion has raised costs. “I would really like to go back to a free market enterprise system and keep these government agencies from blowing up everything when they dump their money in.”
While deriding the health reform law Tester supported, Cox also noted that Rehberg supported the Medicare Part D plan, which increased prescription drug coverage for seniors. That law, some analysts say, will add trillions to the national debt.
On veteran’s issues, Tester shared a poignant story of a Vietnam veteran telling him to treat modern soldiers better than it treated those in his generation. The Democrat said the country’s highest responsibility is to keep its promises to those sent to fight.
“We still got a lot more work to do,” Tester offered. “But the bottom line is, if we’re going to send our folks off to war and make them suffer and make them sacrifice then, by God, we’re going to treat them right when they come home.”
Tester touted his work to increase the mileage reimbursement for veterans who travel for medical care, his bill to incentivize businesses to hire former soldiers, and his push for more veteran-care facilities in the state.
Rehberg said he formed a House subcommittee dedicated to improving the quality of life for America’s soldiers and veterans.
Still, Tester was on the defense throughout much of the debate, shielding himself from Rehberg’s attempts to tie the Democrat to President Barack Obama, an unpopular figure in Montana politics.
Tester said he’s willing to buck his party, when Montanans expect it.
“Look at my record as a whole,” he said, adding that critics who say he supports Obama 95 percent of the time are “cherry-picking” votes.
Rehberg wouldn’t have any of it.
“On major issues, he did not separate from his party,” Rehberg said.
The duo was sharply divided on political spending and allowing corporations to contribute directly in elections. In 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a landmark ruling in the Citizens United case that removed political spending limits for corporations.
Tester said corporate spending in elections is dangerous and gives businesses rights they just don’t have.
“News flash: Corporations are not people,” Tester said firmly. “Citizens United puts our democracy at risk.”
Rehberg said the spending is acceptable as long as it’s properly disclosed.
“There should be nothing more free than political free speech,” he explained.
Though contrasting on many points, Tester and Rehberg agreed, at least on the surface, that the U.S. Postal Service — in its quest to address years of multi-billion dollars losses — should not immediately shutter as many as 85 rural Montana locations that aren’t cost effective. Both men believe doing so would hurt commerce and ruin small communities.
Tester called for cutting salaries for top postal executives, while Rehberg said simply that delay in the shuttering process is needed to find solutions for the postal service and its budget-balancing process.
Tester and Cox will spar again June 24 in Whitefish at the Montana Broadcasters Association’s annual conference.
MBA initially said Rehberg also would appear, but the congressman said the group never confirmed the date and time, adding that prior engagements prohibit his attendance.