BILLINGS – Democratic Sen. Jon Tester blasted Rep. Denny Rehberg at a debate Monday night as a do-nothing congressman, while Rehberg attacked Tester as a clone of President Barack Obama.
The two candidates agreed on virtually no issues at the debate, sponsored by the Billings Gazette and Montana State University Billings. A capacity crowd of 510 people – packed with supporters of each candidate – watched the debate at the Petro Theater. The debate was televised and broadcast statewide.
It was the second of four debates for the Senate candidates this year and the first since June, shortly after the primary election. The remaining debates will be in Kalispell and Bozeman.
“It was rock ’em, sock ’em,” said David Parker, a Montana State University political scientist who is writing a book on the race. “It was tough. They both stayed on their message.”
The two candidates greeted each other like old lost friends when they came onto the stage and shook hands, but were less effusive in their handshakes when the debate ended.
Tester took repeated jabs at Rehberg and the Republican-controlled House.
“Quite frankly, you have not stepped forward with ideas,” Tester told Rehberg.
He criticized the House’s failure to pass a Farm Bill this year, although Rehberg said he went against his party to support one.
At one point, when candidates asked each other questions, Rehberg asked Tester why he thought Obama should be re-elected.
“The point is, congressman, is you’re running against me. ... He can try to morph me into Barack Obama because that’s who he wants to run against, but look at the record.”
Tester cited issues in which he had disagreed with Obama, such as the senator’s support of the Keystone XL pipeline and legislation to remove wolves from the endangered species list. He said earlier that he puts Montana first in every decision he makes.
Rehberg shot back at Tester, saying: “I don’t need to morph you into Barack Obama. You did it to yourself.”
When it was Tester’s turn to question Rehberg, he brought up Rehberg’s 15 expense-paid trips to foreign countries where he had “eaten in castles” and boats and drunk in “gin bars.”
“What did the taxpayers of Montana get?” Tester asked.
Rehberg replied that he was honored to travel and give a keynote speech at Normandy in France. He said he learned about nuclear waste in France and the system that Australia uses as opposed to the Endangered Species Act in this country.
He told Tester that he obtained information from lobbyists, while Tester accepted their cash.
“You were the one who was a lobbyist, a paid lobbyist,” Tester replied.
Rehberg said he traveled on these foreign and domestic trips to learn about issues “rather than going back to my farm every weekend,” a shot at Tester, who returns to his farm to work every weekend.
Here were their stands on some other issues:
Taxes: Rehberg called for elimination of the federal estate tax, which he calls the “death tax,” while Tester advocated making permanent the current estate tax in which the first $5 million of an individual’s estate or $10 million for a couple’s estate is exempt from taxes, with a 35 percent tax rate on estates over those values.
Tester said the current exemptions would apply to nearly every farmer and rancher in Montana and should be permanent.
“The death tax should be zero, ” Rehberg said. “That gives certainty.”
Tester said he favored closing tax loopholes for big oil companies.
Rehberg said he opposes the kinds of tax changes advocated in the federal deficit reduction study, saying it would raise the federal gas tax by 15 cents a gallon and eliminate the mortgage interest rate deduction that homeowners can claim on the federal taxes.
At another point in the debate, Rehberg said he supports the enactment of a flat federal income tax, in which every taxpayer, regardless of income, pays the same tax rate.
Affordable Care Act, or “Obamacare”: Tester generally defended the 2010 federal health insurance reform act, while Rehberg vowed to repeal it.
Federal stimulus: Rehberg attacked Obama’s $787 billion stimulus bill, while Tester supported it.
“The problem is it didn’t stimulate,” Rehberg said. “We could have lowered the corporate tax and lowered the payroll tax on employees and employers.”
Tester said the stimulus provided $500 million in tax cuts for Montanans, kept law enforcement and firefighters on the job and paid for construction of public works projects across the state that kept people employed.
“We were losing 800,000 jobs a month (nationally when Obama took over in 2009),” Tester said. “We were on the cusp of a financial meltdown.”
He said the job losses flattened out and jobs are now increasing nationally.
Rehberg said, “We have to grow and create jobs. You don’t do it by piling on more debts.”
Trade bills: Tester, a farmer, was asked why he had opposed a number of trade agreements with foreign countries.
“The trade agreements have to be fair, not free,” he said. “We cannot allow other countries to dump their products on us.”
Rehberg said he favored some and opposed others, adding: “I didn’t stand with my party. I stood with Montanans.”
Tester countered: “President Obama wanted those trade agreements. Congressman Rehberg, you stood with President Obama.”
Role of government: Tester told Rehberg that it’s small businesses that create jobs, “not multimillionaires like yourself.”
“Belts are going to be tightened in a big way,” Tester said. “Folks making millions and millions of dollars ought to be contributing (more) to the coffers.”
“Feed the beast,” Rehberg said. “That’s all they want to do.”
The third candidate, Libertarian Dan Cox of Hamilton, was not invited to participate in the debate. The Billings Gazette’s longstanding ground rule is that it only invites candidates who obtain at least 5 percent in the Lee Newspapers poll.