CARSON CITY – It took all of about ten minutes for Sen. Dean Heller and Rep Shelley Berkley to mix it up in their first debate in the U.S. Senate race Thursday, criticizing each other on campaign issues ranging from ethics to Medicare to big oil subsidies.
The hour-long debate on KNPB-TV in Reno was the first chance for many voters to see the two candidates spar on the issues, most of which have already been the focus of campaign attacks in the race to date.
Heller, the Republican appointed to the seat last year, and Berkley, a seven-term Democrat Congresswoman representing the 1st District, will debate twice more before election day on Nov. 6.
Rep. Shelley Berkley, D-Nev.
Heller criticized Berkley for supporting big government bailouts and sequestration, a process which could see massive cuts in military and domestic spending, called the “fiscal cliff,” beginning in January if Congress cannot reach agreement on how to reduce spending. He also commented on the ethics issues that are dogging her through the campaign.
Berkley went after Heller for supporting tax breaks for big oil and for supporting a plan by Vice Presidential candidate Paul Ryan to change the Medicare program for younger Americans when they retire in the years to come.
Heller’s alleged ‘hobos’ remark starts the back-and-forth
One of the first questions to provoke Heller was in reference to his alleged comment in Elko in February of 2010 when unemployment benefits were being extended. He supposedly asked if by continuing the program that “the government is now creating hobos.”
“This is the most difficult part of an election; that is proving something that you didn’t do or say,” Heller said in response to the question. “And in this case this is something that I did not do and something that I did not say. Let’s be very specific. I did not say that.”
Berkley used the opportunity to try to align Heller with Mitt Romney’s controversial comments about 47 percent of Americans being dependent on the federal government.
Heller has disavowed Romney’s comments.
U.S. Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev.
Did Heller say that the government is creating hobos?
Yes, according to the Elko Daily Free Press, which reported his comments as: “Heller said the current economic downturn and policies may bring back the hobos of the Great Depression, people who wandered the country taking odd jobs.
“He said a study found that people who are out of work longer than two years have only a 50 percent chance of getting back into the workforce. ‘I believe there should be a federal safety net,’ Heller said, but he questioned the wisdom of extending unemployment benefits yet again to a total of 24 months, which Congress is doing. ‘Is the government now creating hobos?’ ”
But the Heller campaign, in a statement released during the debate, said: “Dean Heller never called unemployed individuals hobos. Then-Congressman Heller was referring to a presentation made by Lawrence B. Lindsey, former Director of the National Economic Council at the White House, before the Republican Members of the House Ways and Means Committee.”
The statement cited a number of times Heller voted to extend unemployment insurance during his career in Congress.
Debate moves to who is a bigger supporter of the middle class
Heller used the opportunity to question Berkley’s claims that she supports the middle class.
“She’s bailed out Detroit, she’s bailed out Wall Street, you name it she’s bailed out everybody time and time again,” he said. “And the question is when are you going to bail out the middle class. What are you going to do for the middle class. You continue to support big bailouts.”
Berkley cited five votes Heller has made “to protect tax breaks for corporations that ship American jobs overseas.”
The Heller campaign pointed to Berkley’s vote in July to extend tax breaks for all but those earning over $250,000 a year. Eliminating those tax breaks “could cost Nevada 6,000 jobs and more than 900,000 nationwide,” the statement said.
Berkley voted for an energy tax, opposed the Keystone Pipeline which will mean the oil gets shipped to China, and supported the Affordable Care Act, Heller said.
Berkley has supported energy tax breaks in Congress, but those breaks have focused on alternative energy development. She introduced the “Clean Energy Jobs Act,” which would extend a 30 percent tax credit for domestic companies that manufacture products used in clean energy projects such as wind turbines and solar panels.
Heller too said he supports renewable energy development, including some federal support.
Berkley’s ethics investigation initiates another round of discussion
Berkley, who is the subject of a House ethics investigation over whether her support of a kidney transplant program in Southern Nevada benefited her physician husband, was asked about the charges. The investigation is under way and is not expected to be resolved before the election.
Berkley did not respond directly to the question, saying only that her only motive was to help Nevadans. Instead she used the opportunity to again attack Heller for voting for big oil subsidies.
Heller said “character matters,” and called Berkley’s ethics issues “a pattern” that existed prior to her being elected to Congress in 1998.
Heller was referring to a memo Berkley wrote to her then-Las Vegas Sands Inc. boss Sheldon Adelson about needing to do favors to local elected officials to get favorable treatment. The memo was made public in 1998.
The Berkley campaign has called the memo old news and not a factor in her election to Congress.
“I think character does matter, and you know what’s important to the people of the state of Nevada? Who’s going to protect them. Who is going to be fighting for them in the U.S. Senate,” Berkley said in the debate. “The middle income families, who’s working for them, who’s making sure that we get people to go back to work.”
Questions about who supports Medicare take center stage
The candidates also debated the future of Medicare, and Heller’s two votes for changing the program to a voucher plan for those under age 55.
Heller said Berkley’s vote for the health care act meant taking $700 billion from Medicare.
“She needs to quit stealing,” from Medicare, he said.
Berkley said moving Medicare to private insurance companies will cost Nevadans more, and “put private insurance company bureaucrats in-between doctors and their patients.”
Berkley said she did not cut money out of Medicare benefits, but instead voted to eliminate over-payments to insurance companies.
Does Heller want to eliminate the Department of Education?
Another issue that provoked a dispute between the candidates is whether Heller has in fact called for the elimination of the U.S. Department of Education.
Heller said he does not support closing the agency, but that it should be downsized to provide more money directly to local school districts.
The Berkley campaign argues that Heller has called for the elimination of the agency.
The Pahrump Valley Times reported: “Heller singled out the U.S. Department of Education for elimination. ‘Just to give you an idea of how they decide how Pahrump Valley High School should be run, we have 3,500 people back in Washington D.C. in the Department of Education that average more than $100,000 per year per person. Now you can’t tell me you can’t take that money, move it to the states and be able to teach better, giving it to the teachers, the principals and the parents.’ ”