TUCSON, Ariz. (AP) — Republican Jesse Kelly and Democrat Ron Barber clashed on Social Security, the health care overhaul and taxes during a Wednesday evening debate in the race for a U.S. House seat formerly held by Democrat Gabrielle Giffords.
The major party nominees and Green Party nominee Charlie Manolakis, who also participated in the debate sponsored by The Arizona Daily Star, are running in a June 12 special election. Giffords resigned Jan. 25 to concentrate on her recovery from a Jan. 8, 2011, shooting that left her critically wounded.
Kelly said he will protect Social Security benefits already earned but give choices to future generations, while Barber said allowing people to not participate would undermine Social Security’s finances and lead to its collapse.
“We cannot abandon a program that’s working,” he said. “Getting people out of the program will not save it.”
Kelley responded that the United States must not deprive Americans of the freedom to decide whether they should participate.
“This is not Europe. This is not Russia,” he said, adding later, “In this country, we believe in choices.”
Kelly said the health care overhaul should be repealed, with the federal government moving to reduce health care costs by promoting competition among insurance companies and allowing them to sell policies across state lines.
“It should be as easy as going on geico.com and purchasing auto insurance,” he said. “We’ll get those costs downs by getting government out of the way.”
Barber said parts of the overhaul should be kept, such as provisions requiring coverage for pre-existing conditions and continued coverage for parents’ offspring who are young adults. A prohibition on government negotiating drug prices for the Medicare program should be dropped, he said.
“What we need to do is fix the things in that bill that are not right … but keep those things that the American people deserve to have,” Barber said.
Barber and Kelly also differed on whether Congress should renew tax cuts that were enacted during former President George W. Bush’s administration and that are now set to expire Jan. 1.
Allowing the tax cuts to expire would strangle the still-ailing economy, Kelly said. “The solution is not to take more money out of the private sector.”
Barber said he would protect the middle class. “But people at the richest end of the spectrum do need to pay their fair share.”
The debate was held amid a flurry of recent television ads targeting voters.
Recent television advertising for Barber has sought to portray Kelly as too conservative for the district, while pro-Kelly advertising has attempted to paint Barber as a minion for President Barack Obama and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.
Barber is Giffords’ hand-picked replacement and her former district director. He also was wounded in the 2011 shooting that occurred during a meet-the-congresswoman event at a Tucson shopping center.
Kelly works for his family’s construction company. A tea party favorite, Kelly defeated three other Republicans in the special election’s April 17 primary to advance to the special election’s second stage.
Barber was unopposed in the primary.
The special election will choose who will serve out the last half-year of Giffords’ term. Both Barber and Kelly also are running in fall elections that will determine who will serve a full two-year term in what will be the newly drawn 2nd Congressional District.
Republicans have a registration edge in the district, which includes much of Tucson and Green Valley, Sierra Vista and Douglas.