Senate hopefuls trade blows on Social Security, other issues

Tuesday, October 22, 2002

ST. LOUIS -- Republican Jim Talent told Democratic Sen. Jean Carnahan on Monday night to stop scaring senior citizens, and Carnahan shot back that his Social Security proposal frightens them.

In the first debate of their U.S. Senate campaign, the two clashed over health care and retirement security, tax cuts and support for the president's homeland security bill.

"I know my opponent has said we are scaring seniors, but his plan is scaring seniors, because they do not want to risk what they have laid aside in the stock market," Carnahan said.

She was criticizing a bill Talent sponsored as a congressman to direct a portion of workers' Social Security payroll taxes into individual investment accounts, which she said amounts to privatization of the nation's retirement plan for the elderly and disabled.

Talent said a lot of out-of-state liberal special interest groups were telling falsehoods about his record and that he would never vote to cut benefits or to end or privatize Social Security.

"We need to stop the scare tactics," Talent said.

Their closely contested campaign is one of a handful around the nation that will determine which party controls the Senate, where the Democrats hold a one-seat advantage. After the fast-paced, one-hour debate, Carnahan flashed a thumbs up and Talent told reporters, "I think we did what we wanted to do."

Carnahan, 68, holds the seat won posthumously in 2000 by her husband, the late Gov. Mel Carnahan, and is campaigning to finish out the term. Talent, 46, is a former U.S. House member who lost the 2000 governor's race by a slim margin.

Sparred on tax cuts

They also sparred on tax cuts, with Talent chiding Carnahan for voting against President Bush's plan for permanent repeal of the estate tax.

"Death tax relief and repeal is essential to small businesses; they are the ones who hire the people," Talent said. "When you mention that only 2 percent of the people pay estate taxes, you have to remember that there are thousands and thousands of business people and farmers who are changing decisions that they would otherwise make in order to lessen the estate burden."

Carnahan characterized their tax-cut disagreements this way: "I want it targeted to middle income families. He wants to give it to the top 1 percent. It's the same old trickle-down economics we had in the Reagan era."

She pointed out she voted last year for the president's $1.35 trillion tax relief package, which contained an estate-tax repeal but which only lasts until 2011 because of complex Senate budget rules.

This year, she opposed Bush's repeal because she said the GOP legislation threatened retirement security programs. She described an alternative she had offered aimed at eliminating the tax on any estate worth less than $4 million and immediately exempting small businesses and family farms.

"He wants to wait another eight years before he does it; I want to do it and have it targeted to the group that will really benefit," Carnahan said. "Do you know how much the estate of Ken Lay would save? Fifty-nine million dollars. We need tax cuts that are targeted to people who are family farmers and small businesses. We need it done now, right now."

Talent pointed out that by voting for the tax cuts last year, Carnahan herself voted to eliminate taxes on the estate of Kenneth Lay, the former CEO of scandalized Enron Corp.

"Mrs. Carnahan offered an amendment that was supposed to benefit family farmers and small businesses -- they didn't want it; they sent her letters begging her not to offer this amendment," Talent said. "It would only have benefited about 1 percent of family farms and small businesses. ... It is not death-tax relief. It is what you do when you are not in favor of death-tax relief, but you don't want people to know that."

Prescription drugs

The candidates also jabbed each other on prescription drugs, with Carnahan criticizing Talent for proposing to create an insurance plan to pay for senior citizens' prescription drugs that relies on private insurance companies. She argues this could leave people in rural areas without coverage.

"We would have to trust the insurance companies," she said "I don't know how many of you out there trust insurance companies, but I tell you, I don't."

Talent shot back that Carnahan's plan would be delayed in taking effect, would ration brand-name drugs and cost far more than the government can afford.

"If we go over the budget, I'll tell you how they'll pay for it in Washington -- they're going to cut Medicare; they'll balance it on the backs of seniors," Talent said. He said his own plan calls for "good, solid coverage for seniors and those with higher or catastrophic costs."

Talent thumped the Senate for failing to pass several versions of a prescription drug bill; Carnahan responded that there are six pharmaceutical lobbyists for every single U.S. senator.

The candidates meet again Thursday afternoon in Columbia for a 90-minute forum hosted by The Associated Press Managing Editors, the Missouri Society of Newspaper Editors, the Missouri Press Association and the Columbia Daily Tribune.

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