The isle Democrats running for Senate debate each other at a hotel on Maui
POSTED: 7:53 p.m. HST, Jun 22, 2012
KAHULUI » U.S. Rep. Mazie Hirono and former U.S. Rep. Ed Case vowed Tuesday to preserve Social Security and Medicare for future generations, but Case said he would consider raising the retirement age under Social Security for younger workers to help keep the program solvent, while Hirono ruled out that option.
The two Democrats who want to replace retiring U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka in the Senate discussed federal entitlement programs at a one-hour debate hosted by AARP Hawaii at the Maui Beach Hotel.
Hirono and Case both oppose privatizing Social Security and would lift the $110,100 cap on earnings subject to the payroll tax that finances the program so higher-income workers would pay a greater share. Case, however, said he would also gradually raise the retirement age for younger workers. Seniors can now get early retirement benefits at 62 and full benefits at 65 or 67, depending on when they were born.
"I believe that you have to preserve Social Security by making some tough decisions, some unpopular decisions, and I will tell you that one unpopular decision has to do with retirement age," Case told an audience made up mostly of seniors.
Hirono said the distinction is rooted in her values. "It flows from the values that we have, because Social Security, as I said, is not a program to be managed. It is a commitment to be kept. That is a value that I have," she said.
The debate — the second of five joint appearances before the Aug. 11 primary — gave the Democrats the chance to directly question each other for the first time in the campaign.
Case asked Hirono whether she would support a Social Security lockbox, which would limit borrowing from Social Security trust funds to help pay for other federal programs. Hirono said she would be open to a lockbox.
Hirono, in a more biting question, asked Case whether he regretted voting against the Medicare Part D prescription drug benefit for seniors when he was in Congress. She said the benefit has "provided millions of seniors with access to lifesaving medicine and saved them millions of dollars."
"I don't have any regrets at all that Medicare Part D took place in a way that delivered prescription drug coverage to seniors," Case responded. "My objection at the time — and continues to be — that it was unaffordable over time. It was not paid for."
But the most revealing moment of the debate came after moderator Gerald Kato, a University of Hawaii-Manoa journalism professor, asked the candidates to explain the sharpest differences between them.
Hirono said she has a collaborative style and could work with colleagues in Washington, D.C., on behalf of Hawaii. She suggested that Case, who has often stressed his independence from the Democratic establishment, would be less adept at the relationship-building necessary in the Senate.
"I bring a style of leadership that is collaborative," she said. "I don't stand on the sidelines and say I'm independent and not work with my colleagues, both in my own caucus and across the aisle."
Case countered that Hirono has not been forthcoming with enough of a detailed policy agenda for him to know the sharpest differences, eliciting annoyed objections from a few Hirono loyalists in the audience. He said he and Hirono have some differences on economics but are both progressive on social issues.
"But as to what those other differences are, I hope we find them out in the next two months before you make one of the most important decisions in your voting life," he said.
The AARP Hawaii debate — recorded for broadcast later this month on Akaku Maui Community Television and shared with ‘Olelo for potential broadcast elsewhere — is one of three between the candidates this week. Hirono and Case will appear on Hawaii Public Radio tonight and PBS Hawaii on Thursday night. A forum originally planned by Oahu Democrats for late May was postponed and is being rescheduled.
Case said he hopes Hirono agrees to additional debates closer to the primary. "So I hope that she changes her mind, and I still hold out hope that she will," he told reporters.
Hirono said she believes primary voters will have enough information to separate the two Democrats. The primary winner will likely face former Gov. Linda Lingle, the leading Republican candidate, in the November general election. "I think people know enough about my record and that they know that I stand with them," she said.