RENO -- Congressional candidates Kate Marshall and Mark Amodei both pledged during a subdued televised debate Monday to fight to preserve Medicare benefits, but they offered few solutions on how to pay for the program's long-term $30 trillion liability.
Democrat Marshall, the state treasurer, said she would not reduce Medicare benefits now or in the future and would cut the unfunded liability by "spending smartly" and negotiating for better prices on prescription drugs.
Republican Amodei said he would look at potentially reducing benefits for people 15 years and longer away from retirement. But he added he wants to increase the Medicare reimbursement rate, now $39, that rural doctors receive for treating Medicare patients.
Neither candidate in the special election Sept. 13 for the 2nd Congressional District could say their ideas would come close to covering the unfunded liabilities Medicare will face over the next 75 years.
Marshall and Amodei are vying to fill the seat Rep. Dean Heller held before he was appointed to the U.S. Senate in May.
Medicare and Social Security have been major issues in the candidates' campaigns as they seek to attract older voters at a time when federal spending faces possibly mammoth cuts. The winner of the election will be seated in Congress this fall as members consider tax increases and additional cuts in federal spending, including entitlement programs.
The candidates' responses in the debate at times exasperated moderator Jon Ralston, host of the "Face to Face" television show.
Ralston questioned how Amodei can say he will cut federal spending when he wants to increase Medicare spending.
He also questioned how Marshall can get Medicare spending under control if she does not believe in "slowing the increases" in Medicare spending.
"What's your plan?" Ralston asked Marshall. "You have no plan (to restore Medicare's solvency)."
The first half of the hourlong debate was broadcast in Reno and Las Vegas on Monday night. The second half will be broadcast at 6:30 p.m. today on KSNV, Channel 3, in Las Vegas.
A third debate between the candidates will be conducted by Reno public television at the Reno Gazette-Journal at 6 p.m. Thursday. There were no plans to air that debate in Las Vegas.
Early voting starts Saturday.
The 2nd District includes all of Nevada except the Las Vegas urban area.
Neither candidate scored any knockout blows during Monday's debate. Nor did they raise their voices, as Ralston typically was louder than both of them.
Amodei, known for his sense of humor as a state senator, was more at ease in the TV debate format than he was at last week's Veterans of Foreign Wars debate before an audience.
Marshall took the offense in that debate but was not as combative Monday. More than Amodei, she needs to gain points because Republicans hold a 30,000-registered voter advantage in the 2nd District, where a Democrat never has won the seat.
In the debate, Marshall insisted that Amodei wants to dismantle the Medicare program, noting he previously said the budget-cutting plan proposed by Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., was "excellent." That plan includes widespread changes to Medicare.
Amodei responded by saying that he would not vote for the Ryan plan and that he had praised it because it was the only budget-cutting plan then under consideration.
Ralston tried repeatedly without much success to get the candidates to repudiate the distorted TV attack ads they have been running against each other.
At one point, Amodei said he was "disappointed" in some of the ads that the National Republican Congressional Committee has run against Marshall, but he refused to reject them. One of the ads blames Marshall for the state's high unemployment and foreclosure rates, areas over which a state treasurer has no control.
Ralston also questioned the fairness of Marshall's ad that attacks Amodei for voting for a record $833 million tax increase, including a payroll tax, in the 2003 Legislature. Every Democrat and most Senate Republicans backed the tax, which Amodei contended was a better alternative to a more onerous tax on business. He said the increase was needed to fund education.
"I would have voted against it, absolutely," Marshall said. "Because of the payroll tax, we have the highest unemployment rate in the country."
When pressed on how she would have balanced the budget that year, Marshall said she would have done "something different" and cited the need to "spend wisely."
In turn, Amodei called himself a "solution guy." He signed a pledge last week not to increase any federal taxes.
"Taxes are not the answer," he said.
Amodei admitted that he never introduced a job creation bill in his 14 years in the Legislature and that he had not read Marshall's Senate Bill 75, passed this year. The bill sets up a $50 million loan program for companies that create jobs.
Amodei contended that job creation was not necessary during his legislative career because the economy was booming during much of that time. But his last session was 2009, a year in which Nevada was buried in recession.
Contact Capital Bureau Chief Ed Vogel at email@example.com or 775-687-3901.