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Tuesday, February 18, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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McMorris Rodgers, Pakootas square off in final face-to-face

In his final attempt to fire barbs before Election Day, 5th Congressional District hopeful Joe Pakootas went on the offensive against Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers in Spokane on Thursday, calling her tenure in Congress a “decade of disaster.”

McMorris Rodgers, who topped Pakootas and defeated two other candidates in the August primary, highlighted what she called a legislative record of successful bipartisanship, pointing to two of her bills that became law in the last session with unanimous congressional support.

Pakootas attacked that record in his single chance to question McMorris Rodgers, per the rules of the debate, which was sponsored by local business organizations. The Democratic challenger accused McMorris Rodgers of votes that hurt military service members and veterans, an apparent reference to her votes in the House of Representatives that precipitated the federal government shutdown in October 2013. Of the 800,000 federal employees who were furloughed during that shutdown, 45 percent were veterans, according to testimony at a congressional hearing in 2013. McMorris Rodgers was one of 87 Republicans who voted for the funding bill that ended that shutdown 15 days after it began, along with 198 Democrats. She defended her record on veterans’ issues in her response.

“It was actually my role, and my priority, around the leadership table,” McMorris Rodgers said. She added that she fought for cost-of-living adjustments to benefits the federal government pays to veterans in her role as House Republican Conference chair.

“It was my voice that said, ‘We’ve got to make this right,’ ” she said.

Pakootas attacked this leadership role as well, tying McMorris Rodgers to House Speaker John Boehner and a Congress he said has an all-time low in approval rating.

“She is the leader of the most dysfunctional, least productive Congress in history,” Pakootas said.

McMorris Rodgers continued to take a bipartisan tone, pointing to her enacted laws on hydropower and pediatric research and listing lofty goals for the next session like tax code reform and continued reductions of the budget deficit.

The debate, which cost $10 to attend, was sponsored by Greater Spokane Incorporated and the chambers of commerce for Spokane Valley and the West Plains.

A half-full auditorium at the Lincoln Center in north Spokane was admonished several times not to audibly support one candidate or the other. Pakootas drew most of the clapping and laughter that was quickly hushed after saying Congress should pass a Senate bill on immigration reform and prohibit rail transport of fossil fuels.

McMorris Rodgers said the rail issue could be avoided if the extension of the Keystone oil pipeline, a proposed span from Canada through the north Plains states, was approved. Environmental groups have fought its construction.

“It’s less than a 2,000-mile project, and it’s just sitting there, waiting for approval, and we can’t get it approved,” she said.

The candidates also differed on the proposed Spokane Tribe casino on the West Plains. Pakootas said he believes the proper vetting process has taken place and the casino would not negatively affect operations at Fairchild Air Force Base, while McMorris Rodgers said she still had “specific concerns” about the proposed site while saying she broadly supported economic expansion for the tribe.

Most of those in attendance were wearing either Pakootas or McMorris Rodgers campaign buttons and stickers, and many said they had already filled out or cast their ballots. Patricia Hilleary, sitting several rows back, said before the debate she wanted to hear about each candidates’ view of the future, though she admitted she’d been “a Democrat since Hector was a pup.”

“I think they’re both preaching to the choir today,” she said.

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