With just one week before the election, 6th District Rep. Michele Bachmann and DFL-backed businessman Jim Graves debated face to face for the first time.
The debate Tuesday was hosted by the St. Cloud Area Chamber of Commerce and centered largely on strategies for creating jobs on tax reform and changes to entitlement programs.
While both Bachmann and Graves agreed employment is a critical issue for the next Congress, the debate exposed deep divisions about the types of policies the two candidates would adopt to spur job creation.
On tax reform, Bachmann talked about doing away with a medical device tax that is attached to the Affordable Care Act, as well as what she characterized as a high corporate tax rate that hurts businesses.
"You have to have taxes. That's how we run government. No one is opposed to them, you have to have them, but they need to be fair," Bachmann said. "They need to be fair to all and they need to be flatter so that all of us can be in a position to be able to meet the tax burden we have."
Graves said Congress should take an approach that cuts spending and increases revenues, to reform the tax code and balance the budget — similar to what's outlined in the Simpson-Bowles deficit reduction plan. Among other things, Simpson-Bowles would cut discretionary spending by $200 billion per year and increase tax revenues by $100 billion. Graves said even if the U.S. cuts all discretionary spending, there s still a $750 billion deficit. And that, he said, requires raising some tax revenue.
"If you're telling me that we have enough income and were just fine and you want to go off a fiscal cliff that's your prerogative," Graves said. "But I love this country and I want this country to get straight.
"We've got to start talking serious and that's what Simpson-Bowles does. It ain't going to be easy because we've had a lot of fun. But we're all going to have to chip in now and pay our due."
Regarding entitlement reforms, Graves discussed getting rid of the wage base for Social Security. Currently, any income beyond $110,000 is not taxed by Social Security. Doing away with the base would bring more money into the system. On reforming Medicare, Graves said those with more money may need to share more of the costs of their care and that the overall costs of health care need to come down.
Bachmann called Graves' plan to cover the anticipated Social Security shortfall the "largest tax increase in American history" and a job killer.
Medicare is currently unsustainable, Bachmann said.
"We have to reform the system for those that are 55 years and younger," Bachmann said. "And whether that's changing age variables, there's a number of variables that we can put in. That's what we have to look at."
Graves accused Bachmann of not answering how she would go about making entitlement programs sustainable, saying "we can't do the political-speak any longer."
Bachmann shot back, arguing that she has called for reforms.
"This is a moral issue. We can't go down the path that we're in," Bachmann said. "I've very much been a part of the solution and it's insulting to say these are political speech because that's one thing I do not do is political speech."
Bachmann also reiterated her stance against the Affordable Care Act, saying it is too much government and too expensive. Graves said the Affordable Care Act does address issues when it comes to access to care, but fails to deliver on driving down health care costs.
At the district level, Bachmann cited the St. Croix bridge to connect Minnesota and Wisconsin as a major achievement of something that was passed because of bi-partisanship.
Graves agreed about the need for the bridge, but said the one Bachmann supported is too expensive.
"I think a Chevrolet would've done just fine," Graves said.
"I would not have built the Rolls Royce that's being built over there. We could've built that bridge for a fraction of what it's going to cost."
The 6th District candidates are scheduled for another debate Thursday, and again on Sunday.
• Follow Conrad Wilson on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/conradjwilson