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Senate candidates spar over budget

By Derrick DePledge


Former Gov. Linda Lingle challenged U.S. Rep. Mazie Hirono on Thursday to explain why she voted for the Budget Control Act of 2011, which raised the debt ceiling and avoided a government default but also created the possibility of automatic spending cuts to national defense.

Automatic cuts to federal programs are scheduled to take effect in January unless Congress and the White House take other action to help with the federal deficit. The potential cuts were included in the law to press Congress toward a bipartisan compromise on deficit reduction.

Lingle said the automatic cuts could put the nation’s defense at risk.

“So how could you go along, regardless of who voted for it or not, why didn’t you do the right thing?” the Republican asked during a one-hour U.S. Senate debate on PBS Hawaii.

“It was either that or the country goes over the economic cliff,” Hirono, the Demo­crat, responded.

Hirono blamed tea party-backed House Republicans for pushing the nation toward a default by refusing to raise the debt ceiling without spending cuts and deficit reduction.

The debate, moderated by political analyst Dan Boylan, had a loose format that often allowed the candidates to talk over each other, avoid direct answers and meander between issues. Boylan tried to keep the tone conversational, but the discussion was often unfocused.

Neither candidate strayed from policy positions they have outlined during the campaign or offered new distinctions that separate them.

Boylan opened the debate by bringing out a yellow Big Bird stuffed animal and asked whether people are serious about cutting federal money for public broadcasting, referencing a goal of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney.

Hirono said Lingle indicated at a debate on Tuesday that she would cut money for public broadcasting.

“I thought, ‘Oh, my, aloha to Big Bird and, you know, the entire ‘Sesame Street’ gang,” Hirono said Thursday.

Lingle questioned whether spending on public broadcasting is essential in the context of potential threats to national defense, Social Security and Medicare.

“It is going to be very important for people to look across the spectrum of how we spend our money and set some priorities,” she said. “And I did say that I’m not sure that Big Bird is essential to the defense of America.”

The debate was the fourth of five debates between the candidates before the November election. The final debate, sponsored by Hawaii News Now and the Star-Advertiser, is scheduled for Monday.

Lingle, who is polling behind Hirono, has often been the aggressor in the debates. Her rhetoric against Hirono has become increasingly dismissive, describing the liberal congresswoman as not only ineffective, but uninformed and a risky choice for Hawaii.

But Lingle needs the support of independents and moderate Demo­crats, including those who will be voting for Hawaii-born President Barack Obama, so she has also used the debates to move closer to Hirono on critical issues such as Social Security and nominees to the Supreme Court.

Lingle now says that, like Hirono, she would not consider raising the retirement age in Social Security, contradicting a statement in late August that she would consider a gradual one-year increase in conjunction with some type of recognition for workers in physically demanding jobs.

Lingle now says that, like Hirono, she would not support a nominee to the Supreme Court who would overturn Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 ruling that legalized abortion. Lingle had said previously that no single issue would determine her vote.

“You’re right, I have a litmus test,” Lingle said. “If someone walked in and said, ‘Hey, if you appoint me to the court, I’m going to overturn Roe v. Wade,’ I’d have to say, ‘I’m sorry, you haven’t passed the litmus test.’ And I would not support them.”

Hirono, rather than blur the partisan lines, has sought to brighten them. She has consistently tied Lingle to the more conservative national Republicans who have fought Obama and would remove Hawaii Sen. Daniel Ino­uye as chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee if they take control of the Senate.

“This is what this election is about — who will gain control of the United States Senate?” Hirono said.

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