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Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, Dave Wilson debate in prime time before election

UPDATED: Mon., Oct. 19, 2020

Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers and challenger Dave Wilson sparred over the federal response to the coronavirus pandemic and destructive wildfires in a debate aired Monday on KSPS-TV.

The eight-term congresswoman said President Donald Trump had responded to the pandemic in an “extraordinary way” by bringing together public and private entities to quickly develop a vaccine, and that she’d worked in Congress to prevent forest managers from raiding money for fire suppression to fight large blazes. Wilson called the administration’s response a “bungled” effort and listed forest management as one of several tasks the GOP had failed to address despite years in control of government.

McMorris Rodgers continued her call for liability reforms to protect private businesses and public entities, like schools, as part of a new round of coronavirus assistance. The lack of those protections led her to vote against a Democrat-backed plan approved in May.

“The fear of a lawsuit, despite all of the effort that you might put into play or take – there’s still thousands of lawsuits that have been filed, so I think it really is critical,” the congresswoman said.

Wilson said relief in the form of extended unemployment assistance and other financial help was more important than shielding entities from legal action when reopening.

“I don’t think the liability issue is as big of a concern to the businesses as just getting their doors back open,” Wilson said. “To me, that’s the higher priority.”

The longest exchange of the debate came following a question about wildfire prevention in the West. Though Washington saw hundreds of thousands of acres burn this summer, much of that activity was confined to the rangelands of Central Washington where timber management plays less of a role.

Wilson said those fires were the result of a warming and drier climate, the human causes of which the Republican Party has failed to recognize as a problem.

“That is the overriding issue, and we’re not going to get back to any kind of normalcy when we have an administration, and a Congress – including the congresswoman – who really doesn’t believe in climate change,” Wilson said.

McMorris Rodgers said she did believe the climate was changing, before quickly pivoting to a lack of forest management as the reason for increased catastrophic fires in the West.

“When you look at decades and decades of kind of a stepping back, we have not been taking the action to be good stewards, and make sure these forests are green and healthy,” McMorris Rodgers said.

If federal lands are the issue and Congress ended the practice of spending fire suppression money for firefighting, Wilson questioned why conditions that permit larger fires persist.

“You’re complaining about the job they’re doing, but it’s controlled by your administration,” Wilson said. “Why doesn’t the president get to the bottom of it?”

McMorris Rodgers said blaming the fire seasons solely on climate change had become a political tactic, and ignored that similar work has been done on the Colville National Forest to thin diseased timber more susceptible to burning.

“I guess I’m a bit frustrated by those who are so quick to point to climate change, and put their head in the ground, as far as the actual work on the ground,” she said.

McMorris Rodgers, who serves as the ranking member of a Congressional subcommittee on consumer protection and commerce, has in recent days joined Republican colleagues calling for an inquiry into social media firms for their public comments concerning the distribution of information that she sees as disadvantaging Republicans. Specifically, she called out Twitter last week for their handling of the release of a story from the New York Post alleging emails linked presidential candidate Joe Biden to his son’s business interests in Ukraine. The New York Times reported this weekend that the lead author on that story asked that his names be withheld due to concerns about the reporting and provenance of the emails.

The congresswoman said Monday the treatment of the story by a social media platform warranted Congressional scrutiny. She’s suggested a reevaluation of whether such platforms should be protected under a section of federal law that prevents legal action being taken against an online service based on the actions or posts of its users.

“You have Twitter that is shutting down conservatives,” McMorris Rodgers said. “Whether it is Dennis Prager or the New York Post, the fourth largest newspaper in America.”

Wilson acknowledged problems with social media driving Americans apart. But he said the issue didn’t have to do with political ideology, but with the spread of misinformation.

“I don’t think those sites took down tweets or posts because they were anti-conservative,” Wilson said. “They took them down because they were anti-fact, or anti-truth.”

McMorris Rodgers and Wilson shared a fist-bump while wearing face masks following the debate taping.

The two candidates are scheduled to appear again at a virtual forum hosted by the Walla Walla Valley Chamber of Commerce on Thursday. Monday’s debate is available to watch on ksps.org, or rebroadcasts on KSPS-TV World at 6 a.m. Tuesday, 5 p.m. Saturday, 10 a.m. Sunday and 9 p.m. Oct. 30. Ballots are due for the election Nov. 3.

Reporter Kip Hill served as a panelist for the KSPS-TV debate taped Monday, along with Spokane Public Radio Program Director Doug Nadvornick. The debate was hosted by Kristi Gorenson.

Kip Hill can be reached at (509) 459-5429 or at kiph@spokesman.com.

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