EAST PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) - Democratic Congressman Jim Langevin and his Republican opponent Michael Riley clashed over taxes, jobs and the incumbent lawmaker's six terms in Congress during their first televised debate.
Langevin, a Warwick native who took office in 2001, and Riley, a Narragansett businessman and political newcomer, sparred for an hour at WPRI 12's studios in East Providence. The debate aired Tuesday, with less than a month to go before voters head to the polls in the 2nd Congressional District.
Langevin emphasized his support for job-training programs and Electric Boat's submarine work, and attacked Republican proposals on taxes and Medicare. "America always does best when we have a strong middle class," Langevin said, later adding: "I always have the interests of Rhode Island in mind."
Riley argued Langevin has been ineffective and criticized the congressman's ideas as "a bunch of gobbledygook," saying the national economy is the key to fixing Rhode Island's economy. "The answer is growth - the answer to all of this is growth," he said. "You need to grow the economy."
new WPRI 12 poll last week found Langevin leading Riley 53% to 29% among likely voters, with Langevin's approval rating at 39%. An independent candidate, Abel Collins, received 9% support in the poll. He was not invited to participate in the debate.
Taxes were a major flashpoint in the debate.
Langevin argued Riley's proposals would be similar to the tax cuts enacted under President Bush in 2001 and 2003. Like most Democrats, he supports allowing those tax cuts to expire for households that make $250,000 or more.
"The kind of tax plan my opponent supports - the same way he supports the [Paul] Ryan budget - all this goes back to same thing: lower taxes on wealthy people at the expense of increasing taxes on the middle class," Langevin said.
Riley said he supports lowering taxes to spur growth, possibly by creating a new flat tax, and dismissed suggestions that doing so would add to the $15 trillion federal debt by reducing government revenue.
"I think these talking points are pretty revealing that he doesn't understand what he's talking about," Riley said of Langevin. He added: "What I propose is a revenue-neutral cut to a lower tax, and most importantly taking 77,000 pages of [tax] code down to 100."
"It's very, very simple: Lower all the taxes, eliminate the tax code and we'll be much better off," Riley said.
Though he acknowledged being nervous, Riley was consistently more aggressive throughout the debate, challenging the premises of Langevin's comments and, at times, the questions. The incumbent sought to steer the discussion back to his disagreements with Republicans in Congress, particularly Congressman Paul Ryan, the vice-presidential candidate.
On Medicare, Langevin said he is hopeful changes made in President Obama's health care law will hold back spending on the program by paying providers based on their results. He said he's reluctant to consider raising the eligibility age for Medicare to 67. "Everything should be on the table but that is not something I'm ready to support at this time because I don't think it is necessary," he said.
Riley said lawmakers need to make changes to Medicare and Social Security because the population is aging, and blamed politicians from both parties for failing to do enough, though he also implied he would not change the programs for those 55 and older. Riley also described raising the Medicare age and Ryan's proposed voucher program as "viable alternatives" for Medicare.
Immigration was a rare point of agreement. Both candidates suggested they would support a comprehensive overhaul of the system that allows some individuals who came to the United States illegally to eventually become citizens.
Riley said he opposes legal abortion except in cases of incest or where the life and health of the mother is at stake. Langevin disputed suggestions from Roman Catholic Bishop Thomas Tobin and Rhode Island Right to Life that he is no longer pro-life because of his support for the federal health care law, which allows funding for abortion.
"My focus in Congress on pro-life issues has always been about trying to reduce unwanted pregnancies," Langevin said, adding that he supports contraception and sex education.
The two candidates found some common ground on foreign policy. Both expressed concern about the recent attack on U.S. diplomats in Libya and both said the United States would need to support Israel if the country attacks Iran over its nuclear program.
"Iran having a nuclear weapon would be a disaster not just for Israel, not just for the Middle East, but for the world community, so this is an international community," Langevin said. "I believe that all options are on the table." He said he hopes diplomacy and sanctions will force Iran to abandon their nuclear weapons program.
Riley said America would need to stand by Israel in the Iranian situation. "But I've got to tell you - outside of party, it's just my gut feeling - I'm tired of war," he said. "I'm sick of it. I want to try to reduce our presence around the world. I don't want to fight. I want to come back. If we have to defend, we will - it will be very reluctantly."
Langevin said his crowning achievement in Congress so far was the passage in 2006 of the Lifespan Respite Care Act, a law he co-sponsored that created a new program to provide relief for family members who are full-time caregivers. "I have always been proud to fight for Rhode Island," he said. The law has provided about $10 million over the last four years to 31 states, including $591,000 for Rhode Island, according to Langevin's office.
On term limits, Riley said he would serve a maximum of three two-year terms and supports restrictions on how many times an incumbent can run for office. Langevin disagreed, saying voters should decide how many terms an individual should serve by voting them out.
Langevin cited his work on the issue of cybersecurity, which has been a major policy focus for him during his time in Congress. Riley reiterated his support for an updated version of the gold standard, suggesting the Federal Reserve should tie the value of the U.S. dollar to an index of commodities.
Riley declined to say if he supports legalizing same-sex marriage in Rhode Island but said he would not vote to repeal the federal Defense of Marriage Act. Langevin said he supports legalizing same-sex marriage and would vote to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act.