HELENA — U.S. House candidates John Lewis and Ryan disagreed sharply over balancing the federal budget, the Affordable Care Act and global warming in a debate in Bozeman on Saturday night.
Lewis, a Democrat from Helena and former top aide to former Sen. Max Baucus, and Zinke, a former Republican senator from Whitefish and retired Navy SEAL, participated in the Montana Television Network’s debate.
Libertarian candidate Mike Fellows of Missoula also is running but was not invited to the debate.
Candidates sharpened their rhetoric in what was their third debate before the Nov. 4 election and the first televised debate since June.
In his closing, Lewis said, “If you want a show horse in this race, Mr. Zinke is your guy. If you want a workhorse, I’m your guy.”
In response, Zinke said in his closing, “This election is about whether you think the policies of Barack Hussein Obama are correct. ... A vote for my opponent is a vote for the policies of this president.”
In his opening, Lewis said, “I’ve focused this campaign on the future. So far in the campaign I’ve heard very little about ideas for the future from my opponent. I’ve heard about what he was doing in 1988. This race is not about what we were doing in 1988.”
He was referring to Zinke’s TV ads that compare what the two men were doing in certain years past. Zinke is 16 years older than Lewis.
Zinke criticized as “a joke” Lewis’ plan to help balance the federal budget by selling used government cars and vacant federal buildings and cutting congressional pay by 10 percent.
“It’s not even a rounding error.” Zinke said. “If we want to get serious about America and restoring America, we’re going to have to address the debt.”
Zinke again expressed his support for the House-passed budget written by Budget Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., “as a framework” to balance the federal budget in a decade. Zinke said he would oppose any cuts to Medicare and Social Security. The Ryan budget would convert Medicare into a voucher system.
Lewis said he would oppose the Ryan budget, saying he instead will be a champion for Medicare and Social Security. Lewis would “not support a budget that would balance the budget on the backs of seniors by turning Medicare into a voucher system and cut benefits for seniors.”
Zinke blasted the Affordable Care Act, or “Obamacare,” which he has accused Lewis as helping write as an aide to Baucus, a claim Lewis has disputed. Zinke said it was Lewis’ job as Baucus’ state director to make sure the values and interests of Montanans were reflected in that bill.
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“When concerned Montana businesses called, what were they told?” Zinke said. “They were told, ‘You know what, don’t grow your business past 50 (employees). Make sure you don’t employ your employees more than 30 hours.’ That hurts business, that hurts every family. As a state director, that’s your responsibility.”
Zinke said the United States needs affordable health care, but a one-size-fits-all bill from Washington isn’t the solution.
He praised the law for providing coverage for people with pre-existing medical conditions but condemned most of the rest of it, saying, “We can do better.”
Lewis said if Zinke wants to see the Affordable Care Act repealed, the Republican should outline what his plan will be to provide health insurance for the millions of uninsured Americans, including 179,000 Montanans.
Tens of thousands of Montanans are benefiting from the Affordable Care Act, Lewis said, while Zinke has no plan to insure them if the law is repealed.
Lewis talked about a part-time Montana teacher who lost his insurance in January, and he signed up on the health care exchange and is paying half of what he paid before.
“There are thousands of Montanans like that,” Lewis said. “If you want to repeal Obamacare, what are you going to tell (the part-time teacher) and family and his kids what he’s going to do because we would lose that insurance?”
Asked whether he believes global warming is human-caused, Zinke cited a recent Wall Street Journal article by a former Obama administration official that concluded climate is changing as it always has, humans are an influence but what the human influence is has not been settled.
“It’s not a hoax, but it’s not proven science either,” Zinke said. “But you don’t dismantle America’s power and energy on a maybe. We need to be energy independent first. We need to do it better, which we can, but it is not a settled science.”
Lewis said Zinke had reversed his position on global warming. Several years ago, he said Zinke signed a letter to President Barack Obama asking him to do something about climate change.
A few years later, Lewis said that Zinke said, “A volcanic explosion in the Philippines has done more to add greenhouse gases than any manmade cause.”
“Look, I want to see consistency on this issue and above all, we need people in Congress that, regardless of how you feel about it, are solution-oriented, want to be part of the solution, because debate is not going away,” Lewis said. “When you put your head in the sand and say it’s not true, that’s not helpful.”