BOZEMAN – In their final and feistiest debate, U.S. Sen. Jon Tester and his Republican challenger, Rep. Denny Rehberg, traded numerous barbs Saturday night over the federal health care overhaul – and just about everything else.
The sparks flew early and often as the two men debated the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, with Rehberg saying the first legislation he would carry if elected to the Senate would be to “repeal Obamacare.”
“We need to put back the $716 billion into Medicare that was stolen (from the program),” he said.
Rehberg called the health care bill a government takeover of health care that is costing businesses money and will get between citizens and their physicians.
“You’re just replacing a big, uncaring insurance company with a big, uncaring government,” he said. “Don’t destroy Medicare just to set up an entirely new entitlement for Obamacare.”
Tester, who voted for the 2010 health care law, said Rehberg apparently hasn’t read the bill, because it relies largely on private health insurance to expand coverage.
“This is not government health care,” Tester said. “I know that’s a great talking point. But this is not government health care. This is about getting more competition in the marketplace, and holding insurance companies accountable.”
Tester said perhaps one mistake with the law is that it’s taken too long for it to go into effect, so people aren’t yet able to see how it works to expand coverage through affordable insurance.
He also said the claim that the law hurts Medicare is false, and that the money removed from Medicare does not affect benefits, and went mostly to private insurance companies.
Tester and Rehberg debated Saturday at the Riverside Country Club near Bozeman, before a statewide television audience on CBS-affiliate stations. It was their fourth and final debate of the contest, which is one of the most-watched U.S. Senate races in the nation.
Recent polls have shown the race to be a dead heat, with two weeks until Election Day. Montanans also have been voting absentee for the past two weeks.
They clashed not only over the health care law, but also on campaign spending regulations, the role of government in the economy, how best to cut the deficit and how to break the partisan deadlock in Washington, D.C.
When asked how to address the so-called “fiscal cliff” in December, when major federal budget cuts and tax increases are scheduled to kick in unless Congress acts, Rehberg said he would repeal Obamacare, and that taxes do not need to be raised at all.
“We have a spending problem in this country,” he said. “It’s control our spending first.”
Rehberg also suggested cutting foreign aid to Pakistan and consolidating the number of job-training programs.
Tester said Democrats and Republicans need to work together to come up with a bipartisan deficit-reduction plan, and predicted Congress will stop the fiscal cliff before the year is out and then work on a longer-range plan early next year.
He said solutions he favors include closing unnecessary overseas military bases and closing tax loopholes for the wealthy and for companies that send jobs overseas, but that he would not propose cuts like women’s health care programs or Head Start.
The two also clashed over the subject of lobbyists, as Tester said Rehberg depends on lobbyists for his information and didn’t report on his campaign records money received from lobbyists.
Rehberg noted that Tester is the largest recipient of lobbyist campaign money of any Senate candidate, according to a nonpartisan group.
“The difference between me and Senator Tester, who demonized lobbyists to get elected, is that I accept their information, he accepts their cash,” he said.