In their first public debate, U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers and Democratic challenger Lisa Brown lobbed criticism on numerous issues, including health care, tax reform, gun control, the farm bill, the special counsel investigation and “dark money” in campaigns.
“I’ve had 10 bills pass the House this year, five signed into law,” McMorris Rodgers said in opening remarks. “And in fact 68 percent of the bills that President Trump has signed this year have been bipartisan. It is the largest, the highest number in 20 years.”
But Brown said it’s the substance, not the number, of bills that should matter to Eastern Washington voters.
“This Congress just isn’t getting the job done,” she said. “It’s paralyzed by special interests and dark money, lurching from one government shutdown to another, not taking on the issues that people really care about.”
The debate, hosted by The Spokesman-Review and KHQ, drew more than 500 people to the Bing Crosby Theater on Wednesday evening. It was moderated by Spokesman-Review reporter Kip Hill and KHQ’s Sean Owsley.
The first round of questions dealt with health care. Asked why the Republican-controlled Congress has been unable to replace the Affordable Care Act, as GOP lawmakers promised, McMorris Rodgers noted that she voted for a replacement proposal in the House, and said she is committed to making health insurance more affordable.
“I am concerned that so many in Eastern Washington continue today to have double-digit premium increases, families and small business owners,” she said. “Copays, deductibles – deductibles that are $5,000, $8,000 – you might as well not have health insurance.”
McMorris Rodgers noted that she voted to extend the Children’s Health Insurance Program, and supported the 21st Century Cures Act in 2016, which authorized $500 million over nine years to fund the development of drugs and other medical products. “I want us to focus on being the leader and curing diseases, not just figuring out how we are going to pay for it,” she said.
Brown responded that “repeal and replace” is nothing more than a “political slogan.”
“We could strengthen Medicare, not voucher it. We could build on Medicaid, as I did in the Legislature, not block-grant it,” Brown said, before describing her and McMorris Rodgers’ voting records when they served in the Legislature. “I voted for the children’s health plan at the state level. Cathy voted against it. I voted to protect people with preexisting conditions. She voted against it.”
Asked whether she would support a so-called “Medicare for all” bill that has been floated by some congressional Democrats, Brown indicated she would support legislation dubbed Medicare X – a slow-growing public insurance option that would offer different benefit packages than the program that currently covers Americans 65 and older.
“I think they call it Medicare X for all, where families and businesses could buy in,” Brown said. “Now that would provide real competition to the insurance industry, and I think that’s where we need to start, not going backwards as the current Congress is, but moving forward with what already works.”
McMorris Rodgers said she, too, wants to “strengthen” Medicare and insisted she has not supported cutting the program, though Brown noted that the congresswoman voted for a House budget that would have cut spending on Medicare and added work requirements to Medicaid.
Asked about the Department of Veterans Affairs, which has been plagued by long wait times and many other problems, McMorris Rodgers said she’s focused on knocking down barriers that have stopped veterans from receiving health care. Among other things, she said she supported a measure enabling patients to schedule their own appointments.
“I’m proud to have just supported the largest budget ever for the veterans administration – $202 billion,” McMorris Rodgers said. “It’s actually doubled in the last decade.”
Brown said too many problems linger, and she accused of McMorris Rodgers of attempting to privatize the Veterans Affairs Department, which the congresswoman denied. Brown also said she sees flaws in the controversial VA Choice program, which allows veterans to use some degree of private care at taxpayer expense.
“Veterans have told me,” Brown said, “that the choice program – the so-called choice program that was much-heralded a few years ago – actually resulted in them getting referrals that may have been positive, but then they ended up with bills that were unexpected.”
Next, the candidates were asked whether they support Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. Although the audience had been asked not to clap, cheer, heckle or boo, McMorris Rodgers’ answer elicited an outburst of laughter from many Brown supporters.
“I definitely think that we need to know what the truth is,” the congresswoman said of the Russia probe. “There’s been a lot of allegations, but there’s yet to be evidence.”
After saying that Mueller “needs to finish this investigation as soon as possible,” McMorris Rodgers pivoted back to Veterans Affairs issues.
Brown said the investigation should move forward unimpeded.
“The issue isn’t how fast it wraps up,” she said. “The issue is getting the truth out there. And there have been indictments, and there are probably more to come.”
Brown also said there should be no rush to confirm Brett Kavanaugh as a Supreme Court justice. She said the Senate should wait until an independent investigation takes place into allegations that he sexually assaulted a woman while they were in high school in the early 1980s.
“The rush to judgment – confirm as quickly as possible – is not the right thing for a lifetime appointment, and it runs over the rights of women just like what happened in 1991 when Anita Hill came forward with her allegations,” Brown said.
McMorris Rodgers did not raise concerns about the Senate Judiciary Committee’s current plan to interview both Kavanaugh and his accuser, Christine Blasey Ford, on Monday. In a letter Wednesday, Sen. Chuck Grassley, the Iowa Republican who chairs the committee, wrote that Ford has the option to testify Monday in a private hearing.
“I think it’s important that we give every woman an opportunity to be heard. I think that that is very important,” she said. “It is my understanding the Senate has scheduled a hearing for Monday, where both Kavanaugh and the accuser will be in front of the Senate and given a chance to be heard and to answer questions. And I think we just need to continue to allow this process to play out.”
Asked about the farm bill, Brown faulted lawmakers for not stopping the Trump administration from imposing tariffs on trading partners, and for supporting work requirements for beneficiaries of SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly called food stamps.
McMorris Rodgers said she is glad that Trump is attempting to punish China for intellectual property theft and unfair trading practices, and she defended the proposed work requirements, noting the availability of jobs in a strong economy.
Brown also faulted McMorris Rodgers and her colleagues for not passing legislation to keep so-called “dark money” out of politics, but McMorris Rodgers pointed out that Brown’s campaign has benefited from PACs that obscure the original source of contributions.
“There’s an outside group. I’m not sure who they’re funded by. Maybe George Soros,” McMorris Rodgers said. “And yet you have not taken a stand against that dark money. If you believe in transparency, then you need to act in a transparent way.”
One of the last questions of the hour-long televised portion of the debate came from a local activist, who asked about McMorris Rodgers’ stance on the jailing of immigrants at the border, and about her support of Spokane Proposition 1 in 2017, which would have changed or removed portions of city law that restrict police and other officials from asking about a person’s immigration status.
McMorris Rodgers did not address the question about Proposition 1. She did say, as she has in the past, that she did not support the Trump administration’s short-lived policy of separating families at the U.S.-Mexico border. She said she supports a merit-based immigration system that would bring people with more skills and education into the United States.
Brown, meanwhile, criticized lawmakers for not passing the so-called DREAM Act after Attorney General Jeff Sessions scrapped the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, known as DACA, which protects some immigrants who were brought into the country illegally as children.
“We are essentially putting them in jeopardy because of the actions of their parents,” Brown said. “This Congress could solve that when she heads back to Washington, D.C. But I predict it’s not happening until after the next election.”
Another audience member asked if the candidates would consider taking part in another debate in Colville, and Brown said she was eager to do so. McMorris Rodgers, however, brought Washington Democratic Sen. Maria Cantwell into the equation.
“Here’s the deal,” McMorris Rodgers said. “If you can get Sen. Cantwell to do some more debates, I’ll do some more debates.”
“Wow,” Brown said, while the audience roared. “I don’t understand why that’s the standard, to tell you the truth. I really don’t.”
Editor’s note: This story was changed on Thursday, Sept. 20, 2018, to clarify an audience member’s question and the candidates’ responses on immigration. It was also updated to reflect that Sen. Chuck Grassley has offered to hear testimony from Brett Kavanaugh’s accuser in public or in private on Monday.
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