By Deena Winter | Nebraska Watchdog
GRAND ISLAND, Neb. — A couple thousand people packed an arena Saturday at the Nebraska State Fair to hear former governor and U.S. Sen. Bob Kerrey explain why they should send him back to Washington, D.C., rather than state Sen. Deb Fischer.
Kerrey’s formidable debating skills were on full display — he showed no fear in answering questions quickly, citing statistics and dropping punchy one-liners — but Fischer, a less experienced debater, held her own, choosing her words carefully.
Kerrey, a Democrat, portrayed himself as a man who will move to the middle to solve the nation’s most pressing problems, while Fischer, a Republican representing Valentine, sold herself as a solid conservative who opposes all tax increases.
“I promise you I will shake up Washington, D.C., and challenge (U.S. Senate Majority Leader) Harry Reid as often as I annoy (Senatge Minority Leader) Mitch McConnell,” Kerrey said early in the debate.
Both said they support the Keystone XL pipeline, which would carry tar sands oil from Canada to Gulf Coast refineries. Fischer, who lives in the ecologically fragile Sandhills that bogged down the pipeline, touted the Legislature’s compromise that required the Canadian pipeline company to reroute the pipe.
“I support building the pipeline and I believe we need to do this,” she said. “But we have to make sure those environmental concerns are met, and that’s the process we’re going through now.”
But Kerrey said no evidence indicates Fischer opposed the original pipeline path through the Sandhills and credited Nebraskans with rising up and forcing TransCanada into moving its route. And he accused Fischer of passing an eminent domain bill to protect private property owners with a pipeline exemption “that’s big enough to drive a 36-inch diameter pipeline across the state.” Fischer said that part of the law has been in place since the 1960s.
Asked how they would deal with the country’s fiscal crisis, Fischer said she opposes cutting Medicare benefits for anyone older than age 40, but supports increasing the eligibility age and conducting means testing for those younger than 40.
“We need to have an adult conversation,” she said of reforming Social Security and Medicare. “We need to quit making this a political football.”
Kerrey criticized Fischer’s support of a constitutional amendment reducing federal spending to 18 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product without drastically reducing Social Security and Medicare benefits.
“You’re not going to get this done unless you move to the middle,” he said. “Medicare beneficiaries are going to feel the pain, if you go to 18 percent.”
But Fischer noted the nation was at 18 percent of GDP as recently as 2001.
“This can happen. We do it by cutting spending,” she said. “Mr. Kerrey wants to raise taxes. I believe we’ll turn the economy around by growing jobs.”
Kerrey said he remembers that well, because that’s the year he left the Senate, when the nation was paying down its debt, but that’s changed as a consequence of “two unfunded wars” for which America borrowed from China.
On illegal immigration, Kerrey reiterated his support for presumptive GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s plan to offer citizenship to any immigrant serving in the U.S. military. He also supports President Barack Obama’s order to stop deporting children of illegal immigrants who came to the United States as children. He urged respect for Hispanics.
“They work hard. They save their money. They hang together as a family. They go to church on Sunday,” Kerrey said. “That used to be the American way. We need to treat them with dignity.”
Fischer said she supports securing the nation’s borders and ports, and making E-verify mandatory for businesses, but she opposes incentives or a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants.
Asked whether climate change is caused by man and what should be done about it, Fischer said she opposes cap-and-trade legislation, because it would increase taxes on families.
“I believe that our weather changes,” she said. “I do not believe we have a huge influence of man on our climate. We need to make sure that we have solid science.”
Kerrey disagreed, saying humanity has to change, and nobody will be hurt more by global warming than farmers and ranchers.
“We are warming the planet. All you need is high school chemistry to figure this out,” he said.
Kerrey touted the success of ethanol but said Nebraska can do more to tap into wind power, while Fischer said her energy plan is a “balanced approach that involves oil, coal, nuclear and renewables.”
On other issues:
- Fischer said she opposes a resolution to withdraw troops from Afghanistan by 2014. Kerrey supports it.
- Both said their views on abortion would not be a major factor in their decision to confirm or deny a U.S. Supreme Court nominee.
- Both said they wouldn’t have voted for Wisconsin U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget bill. Romney selected Ryan as his running mate.
- Kerrey knocked Fischer for supporting a repeal of the financial regulation bill that allows banks to charge whatever they want for debit fees, among other things. Fischer said the law is hurting community banks.
- Fischer said Kerrey’s Social Security reform gradually would increase the salary cap on payroll taxes, which would be a tax on middle-income earners. Kerrey acknowledged “it does sort of clip the high end of the middle class,” but fixes Social Security.
- Fischer said the No Child Left Behind Act should be repealed. Kerrey did not state a position on this issue.
- Kerrey said he supports Obama’s health-care law, because it will help rural Nebraska. Fischer said she wants to repeal the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.
During a segment where the candidates were allowed to ask each other questions, Fischer asked Kerrey whether he would pledge to vote against Reid as U.S. Senate majority leader. Kerrey said no, but noted he’s proposed abolishing Reid’s job by making the U.S. Senate nonpartisan.
“It’s nice to talk about being nonpartisan,” Fischer said, noting she’s served in the nonpartisan Unicameral for eight years, “but the reality is Washington is partisan, and you have to develop relationships and work across the aisles where you can. Abolishing partisanship is not gonna happen.”
Fischer asked Kerrey what he said to Nebraska’s Democratic U.S. Sen. Ben Nelson when he talked to him about the Affordable Care Act, implying he told him to support the legislation.
“I said ‘I’ll support you either way,” Kerrey replied. “I knew it was a tough decision. It’s always difficult to care about the minority. … We’re a better nation because we care for all of us.”
Contact Deena Winter at email@example.com.
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