Sen. Jon Tester and U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg tangled in Kalispell Sunday night, rehashing many of the main points that have come up in two previous debates, but this time with Libertarian Dan Cox taking jabs at both of them.
The trio debated in front of 300 people at Flathead Valley Community College. The debate was sponsored by the Daily Inter Lake and as many as 700 additional people watched the debate live-streamed on the Inter Lake's website.
Rehberg, the Republican challenger, once again aimed to connect Tester, the Democratic incumbent, to big government and the “failed policies” of President Barack Obama’s administration.
Tester pushed back, particularly against assertions from Rehberg and his allies that Tester supports Obama 95 percent of the time.
“Your 95 percent figure is crazy,” Tester said. “It is inaccurate and misleading ... It is amazing to me that they define me as something I’m not.”
Tester joked that he doesn’t even agree with his wife 95 percent of the time.
Tester depicted Rehberg as an irresponsible spender during his 12 years in Congress. He described Rehberg as a politician who used a “credit card” to vote for a new federal prescription drug program and two wars, among other spending.
Rehberg was challenged about supporting cuts for the Public Broadcasting Service, Americorps and community health clinics that provide preventive care to women.
That served as an opportunity for Cox to jump in — as he did many times— zinging Tester and Rehberg and often drawing laughs from the audience.
“They’re only talking about nibbling at the edges of some the proposed increases in federal spending,” Cox said, adding that the country is likely to face $1.7 trillion in additional deficit spending next year. “We’re talking about cutting PBS. Let’s get real.”
Rehberg went after Tester for supporting the federal stimulus bill, cap-and-trade policies that he described as an “energy tax,” and particularly the Affordable Care Act that he warned will eventually be implemented with costly “entitlements” of insurance premium subsidy and Medicaid expansion.
Tester defended the $830 billion stimulus bill, saying it paid for, among other things, part of the Going-to-the-Sun Road reconstruction project in Glacier National Park and the Kalispell U.S. 93 bypass, as well as supporting community health clinics, fire departments and police departments across the state.
Rehberg described the stimulus as a failure.
“You don’t spend $1 trillion and hope to create an asset ... I don’t think government should be picking winners and losers. Government should be creating an environment of liberating Main Street.”
Cox jumped in, pointing out that Rehberg has voted to raise the federal debt ceiling that allowed stimulus spending to proceed.
“What you’re basically saying is I’m enabling this spending I didn’t vote for,” he said. “One guy is voting for it. The other is voting to allow it.”
Tester defended the Affordable Care Act at times, citing provisions that protect people with pre-existing medical conditions and protect sick people from having their insurance policies terminated. There are parts of the health care bill “that will help” working families and small businesses, he said.
“To listen to the Congressman talk, you would think that the old system was just grand. It wasn’t grand,” Tester said.
“The problem is the slogan of the Republicans is that they want to ‘repeal and replace’ Obamacare,” Cox interjected, later asking why Affordable Care Act opponents should support “Republicancare.”
When asked about the so-called Bush tax cuts expiring on Jan. 1, a date that has been called “Taxmaggedon,” Rehberg responded that he would vote to repeal the Affordable Care Act and make the tax cuts of 2001 and 2003 permanent. He cited a need for tax certainty in the country.
Tester didn’t address the tax increases directly, but did say that that “House and Senate need to come together with a major proposal that reduces our debt.”
“As the government grows bigger, we lose our freedoms and our opportunities,” Rehberg said, referring to the heavy-handedness of the Environmental Protection Agency and Dodd-Frank banking regulations that have hindered local lending and economic development.
“If you like the path of the last six years of growing government, then Jon Tester is your guy,” Rehberg said.
Earlier in the debate, Tester defended the Dodd-Frank legislation as being important to prevent abuses from “too-big-to-fail” financial institutions on Wall Street.
The legislation put “more cops on the beat to make sure Wall Street won’t do it again.”
Cox made another wisecrack: “We hear over and over again that Rehberg is a problem and Tester is a problem, and I’m going to agree with both of them.”
On two occasions, Rehberg pointed out that Tester supported the confirmation of Supreme Court Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan — justices he believes are hostile to the Second Amendment. Rehberg said he would not have supported their confirmation. Tester did not respond on that particular issue.
Tester was critical of the Citizens United Supreme Court case that has allowed corporations to have unfettered involvement in political spending.
“We’ve seen tens of millions of dollars of secret money come into this state to define me as something I’m not,” said Tester, who called for transparency about who contributes to political action committees.
Rehberg appeared to speak favorably of Citizens United, saying political free speech is the most important, but he added that he supports 100 percent transparency with campaign donations.
The problem, Tester pointed out, is that Citizens United doesn’t require transparency in reporting political contributions.
Asked about an inheritance tax being reinstated on Jan. 1, Tester said he favors having an exemption for the first $5 million in inheritance.
Rehberg said he favors eliminating the “death tax” entirely.
Tester and Rehberg are engaged in one of the tightest Senate races in the country. The campaign has become increasingly contentious as both sides flood the state with attack advertisements.
Tester and Rehberg square off for a fourth and final debate next Saturday night in Bozeman.
Reporter Jim Mann may be reached at 758-4407 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
From left, U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, Libertarian candidate Dan Cox and U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg debate at Flathead Valley Community College in Kalispell.
Libertarian candidate Dan Cox at the U.S. Senate Debate on Sunday at Flathead Valley Community College in Kalispell.
Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., at the U.S. Senate debate on Sunday at Flathead Valley Community College in Kalispell.
Kellyn Brown, left, editor of the Flathead Beacon, and Frank Miele, managing editor of the Daily Inter Lake, questioned candidates at Sunday's U.S. Senate debate sponsored by the Inter Lake.
Sunday's U.S. Senate debate attracted a crowd of 300 people.
Derek Skees of Kalispell, a Republican candidate for state auditor, and his wife, Ronalee, talk with Dan Cox, Libertarian candidate for U.S. Senate and his wife, Sheila Welke-Cox, before Sunday's debate.
People arrive at the U.S. Senate debate on Sunday at Flathead Valley Community College in Kalispell.
Sam Stockham of Kalispell stands with Republicans in a rally before the U.S. Senate debate on Sunday at Flathead Valley Community College in Kalispell.
Jon Tester supporters cheer outside the Arts and Technology Building prior to the start of the U.S. Senate debate on Sunday at Flathead Valley Community College in Kalispell.