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Federal debt a focus of 1st District debate


NEWPORT NEWS—How Congress should handle the federal debt, budget cuts and health care reform dominated the first of two debates in the 1st Congressional District race.

The 90-minute debate Tuesday night between incumbent Rob Wittman, a Republican, and challengers Democrat Adam Cook and independent Gail Parker was held at Christopher Newport University. The Daily Press, CNU and the National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association sponsored the event.

Wittman, who is from Montross, is seeking his third full term in Congress, where he said he has focused on building relationships and working in a bipartisan fashion to find compromises.

Cook, an attorney and Air Force reservist from Fredericksburg, is making his first bid for office, and said he thinks Congress is broken and needs new blood.

Parker, who lives outside the district, has run for the seat and other offices before, focusing her platform on increased rail access. State law doesn’t require House candidates to live in the districts for which they run.

The 1st District runs from the Newport News area up to Fauquier, covering all of the Northern Neck, Caroline, Stafford and Fredericksburg.

Cook tried to tie Wittman to vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan’s budget proposals that would cut popular safety-net programs, and criticized Wittman for voting for last year’s debt ceiling deal. Cook said he opposes the deal, because while it prevented a debt default, Congress attached a package of deep spending cuts—called “sequestration” cuts—that would cause the loss of thousands of federal contracting jobs in Virginia.

Those cuts would hurt the 1st District, which has a huge military and defense presence, Cook said, but he also took issue with Congress’ initial reluctance to raise the debt ceiling at all.

“We need some new members in the House,” Cook said, adding that incumbents “who authorized all of this spending, who authorized these tax cuts are going to go back to their district and say it’s not my fault, it’s somebody else’s fault, send me back.”

Wittman has said in the past he wants Congress to find a way to avert the sequestration cuts. He took issue with Cook’s accusation that it was irresponsible not to raise the debt ceiling but also irresponsible to vote for sequestration. “There is no ‘maybe’ button there in Washington when you go to vote.”

On questions of taxes, Wittman said he opposes raising taxes, including proposals from Democrats to end the Bush tax cuts.

Cook said he favors ending those cuts on people earning more than $250,000 a year.

The candidates also differed on solutions for Medicare and Social Security, although all three vowed not to change benefits for current recipients.

Cook said he believes Medicare can be made solvent without major changes to eligibility, and advocated allowing Medicare to negotiate for prescription drug prices. He also accused Wittman of supporting proposals to turn Medicare into a voucher system. “I will stand up for Medicare I am absolutely against changing it, voucherizing it or cutting benefits.”

Wittman said he would not support changes to Medicare for those currently 55 and over, but if the system doesn’t get some sort of reform, “Medicare runs out of money.” He said he’s open to ideas, including ones in which future seniors “would have the ability to make choices” between traditional Medicare and other plans.

All three candidates agreed that the federal government must cut spending, even if it avoids sequestration.

Cook and Parker, who have both served in the military, advocated cutting military spending. Parker suggested steeper cuts, by closing overseas bases, while Cook made mention of frills like a military-owned ski resort in the Bavarian Alps.

“Which I’ve visited, it’s lovely, American taxpayers shouldn’t be paying for it,” Cook said.

Wittman said Social Security and Medicare are the two biggest drivers of the federal budget increases, and that Social Security needs changes—such as the eligibility age—to stay solvent.

“The math of Social Security today is very different than it was when it went into place,” Wittman said. “We’ve got to make changes there, and everything is going to have to be on the table.”

On the Affordable Care Act, Cook said he disagrees with some parts, like the individual mandate, but approves of the overall aim of the bill. He mentioned a 24-year-old staffer who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and was covered by her parents’ insurance because the ACA said she could stay on it until she was 26.

“I’m not willing to repeal it, replace it with nothing and leave people like [the staffer] out in the cold,” Cook said. “We need to make sure we’re taking care of every American.”

Wittman has voted to repeal the ACA twice, he said, “with the sole purpose of replacing it, and I want to make sure a replacement occurs immediately.”

He said he likes the bill’s protections for those with pre-existing conditions and children under 27. But, he said, he doesn’t think the ACA overall is the right solution.

“The Affordable Health Care Act is anything but affordable health care” for individuals, he said.

Parker said she had no position on the bill because it didn’t motivate her to run.

The candidates were also asked about controversial “personhood” legislation in Congress, which would define life as beginning at conception. Opponents say it’s an effort to limit abortion rights and could restrict contraceptive access.

Cook said he’s against a personhood bill, calling it “probably the most extreme piece of legislation that’s ever been introduced in Congress.”

Wittman is a co-sponsor of the personhood bill. He said that he was adopted, and that if Roe vs. Wade had been law in the late 1950s, he doubts he’d have been born.

“I am blessed that my mother chose to bring me into this world,” he said.

After the debate, Wittman said he is “100 percent pro-life” and is “not as convinced as some” that the personhood bill might threaten contraception.

The candidates will debate once more, in Fredericksburg—the other end of the district—Oct. 29, at the University of Mary Washington.

Chelyen Davis: 540/368-5028

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