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McMorris Rodgers, Pakootas talk Trump, veterans’ health care and guns in televised debate

Familiar foes for Eastern Washington’s seat in the U.S. House of Representatives tussled Thursday during a televised debate over how to solve health care problems at the beleaguered Veterans Affairs Department.

Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, seeking her seventh term as the 5th District representative, defended draft legislation she released this summer that she says will improve services to veterans. Joe Pakootas, the Nez Perce tribal executive challenging the congresswoman once again after being defeated in the 2014 election, attacked the plan as privatizing health care for the nation’s military.

The argument typified McMorris Rodgers’ traditionally conservative charges during the debate that the federal government and its regulation need to be scaled back, while Pakootas accused the congresswoman of leading a do-nothing Congress that has failed in its most basic funding duties.

McMorris Rodgers and Pakootas directed barbs at each other on the VA in brief moments of venom that are atypical of the largely convivial competition that has dominated the past two campaigns. The debate was filmed at the studio of KSPS, Spokane’s public television station, and was scheduled to air at 9 p.m. Thursday and 10 p.m. Monday.

“We shouldn’t be afraid of having a conversation about how we deliver care,” McMorris Rodgers said of her draft bill. “It is not privatizing the VA.”

The bill, which has not been introduced in Congress, creates a new charitable nonprofit with a board of directors appointed by the president and lawmakers to oversee health care services provided to veterans. It also creates a five-tiered “premium support” system allowing eligible military personnel to receive health insurance assistance when seeking care outside of VA medical centers.

The bill has been supported by the group Concerned Veterans of America, an advocacy group tied to financial backers of conservative politicians. Pakootas adopted the stance of the bill’s opponents, saying the issues would be solved if Congress funded the department adequately and that the premium support system would create a voucher system for private care that could leave low-income veterans without a safety net.

“What’s been happening is they’ve been reducing the services for veterans also, in certain areas, because they cannot afford that,” Pakootas said, referencing the 2014 closure of the Mann-Grandstaff VA Medical Center’s 24-hour emergency room in 2014. Officials cited a lack of available physicians, rather than a funding shortage, for the ER closure.

McMorris Rodgers retorted that during her time in Congress, spending on the VA had doubled without improvements in service. In 2004, the VA was authorized to spend $79 billion, when adjusted for inflation. Last year, the department was authorized to spend $163 billion, as the agency has cited additional demand because of the number of servicemen and -women needing care after conflicts in the Middle East.

When Pakootas accused McMorris Rodgers of cutting the necessary funding to keep the VA’s doors open, the congresswoman interjected, “Not true.”

“This is not a funding issue,” McMorris Rodgers said.

Top of the ticket

Pakootas referred to the congresswoman’s tacit support of Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump multiple times in the debate, saying she hadn’t spoken against his stated plan to deport millions of immigrants living in the country illegally or combat what he called racist and divisive rhetoric toward people of color.

“Some of the problem that we have, people are kind of pushing it out nowadays, and you see more and more of it on the streets,” Pakootas said of racially divisive language. “And, one of our presidential candidates is talking that, but Congress is not saying that that is not OK. They’re staying silent about it.”

McMorris Rodgers said she supported border security, including building a wall on the border with Mexico as proposed by Trump, as the first step in reforming immigration policy. But she does not support the immediate deportation of the people living in America illegally.

On Trump, McMorris Rodgers continued her hesitant support of the divisive candidate by saying his opponent, Hillary Clinton, would bring more of the federal government regulations she’s trying to untangle.

“I will be voting for Donald Trump, and I believe that he can bring the positive disruption that we need to see in our government,” said McMorris Rodgers, the fourth-ranking Republican in the House of Representatives. She highlighted Trump’s business acumen, despite recent reports from the New York Times and elsewhere that he claimed hundreds of millions of dollars in losses on tax returns that have yet to be released publicly by his campaign.

“I’ve made it very clear there have been things that Donald Trump has said and done that I don’t agree with,” McMorris Rodgers said. While she has criticized Trump, particularly for statements made about women on social media, the congresswoman also has said in recent months she’s had productive conversations with the Republican candidate for president and praised his choice of Mike Pence as a running mate.

Pakootas, who later suggested a Bernie Sanders-like raise in the minimum wage to $22 an hour as part of a stairstep increase over several years, said he’d be voting for Clinton.

“Hillary Clinton has the ability, has the background, has the experience to lead this country forward,” Pakootas said.

McMorris Rodgers said the issue of minimum wage should be left to the states, not the federal government.

Guns, refugees

and health care

McMorris Rodgers said she could not support legislation that would outlaw the sale of guns to people on the terrorism watch list, a proposal that has gained traction in the wake of large-scale gun attacks by those the FBI has been investigating. Trump has indicated, in a break with many conservative lawmakers, he’d entertain such legislation if elected to the White House.

“The constitutional rights of the individuals also need to be respected that end up on that list,” McMorris Rodgers said.

But Pakootas said those on the list already had forfeited their constitutional rights, and he would support such legislation. He also said he’d be in favor of a return of the assault weapons ban, a 10-year federal restriction on the sale of semi-automatic guns with large ammunition capacities, even though he’s a gun owner and supports the Second Amendment.

Pakootas said he would continue to support the annual relocation of thousands of refugees from war-torn Syria, despite fears of potential infiltration by those with ties to terrorist groups.

“We do have a vetting process in place,” Pakootas said. “Some of the Congress, and some of the candidates, don’t believe that, or don’t think that, because they want to instill this fear in the American people.”

McMorris Rodgers said there was a legitimate concern for safety, though the issue was “heartbreaking.” She repeated reasoning used by many politicians this campaign season, that FBI Director Jim Comey said the agency couldn’t properly vet those who were coming to America’s shores.

“I have supported legislation that would call for a halt to the Syrian refugee program, bringing them to America, until we can assure they are vetted in a way that protects this country,” she said.

The statement attributed to Comey, which has been used by former presidential candidate Ted Cruz and Carlos Beruff, who hoped to unseat Marco Rubio as one of Florida’s senators, has been debunked as “mostly false” by fact-checking group PolitiFact. Comey admitted in Congressional testimony the FBI could only act on intelligence it had gathered, and it was impossible to say the agency could stop all threats.

Though the Affordable Care Act has been in place for more than six years, McMorris Rodgers continued the Republican attacks on the sweeping legislation that have dominated much of President Barack Obama’s time in office. She repeated her support of provisions that would allow people to stay on their parents’ plans until age 26 and for coverage of pre-existing conditions, but said the law had raised rates for many and defied its moniker, making coverage unaffordable.

“The promises that were made in the Affordable Care Act are not being seen,” she said.

Pakootas said he supported the legislation as passed and that it was unfortunate Republicans had gutted many of its key provisions and remained focused on dismantling it half a decade later.

“There’s been promises to have a bill in place that is going to be just as good, or better, than the Affordable Care Act,” Pakootas said. “And that has just not happened yet.”

Pakootas’ primary performance was better in August compared to 2014, but half of the district’s voters selected a Republican candidate – either McMorris Rodgers or fellow GOP hopeful Tom Horne.

Editor’s note: Spokesman-Review reporter Kip Hill participated in the debate as a panelist questioning the candidates.

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