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Housley and Smith trade barbs, but agree on some issues

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Republican state Sen. Karin Housley and Democratic U.S. Sen. Tina Smith.
Republican state Sen. Karin Housley, left, and Democratic U.S. Sen. Tina Smith field questions before an audience at Hamline University in St. Paul on Thursday.
Mark Zdechlik | MPR News

Just days before the election, Minnesota U.S. Sen. Tina Smith and her Republican challenger, state Sen. Karin Housley, wrangled over immigration, health care and other issues at Hamline University Thursday. It was the first general election debate between the two. 

  Smith and Housley spent an hour fielding questions before an audience of about 300 at Hamline University in St. Paul. Both agreed health care is the No. 1 concern of voters right now, and then began laying out their differences.  

  Housley, who's been campaigning against the Affordable Care Act, said the only way to get costs under control is to let health plans compete more.  

"We need to know what it costs to have a hip surgery or a knee surgery — increased transparency and competition and also we need to  be able to buy our health insurance across state lines like we do our car insurance," Housley said.

  Smith, a Democrat appointed to serve in the Senate after Al Franken resigned, said Congress should allow the federal government to negotiate drug prices for Medicare recipients. She also cited her early efforts in Washington to fight the increasing cost of prescription drugs.  

"The very first bill that I introduced in the Senate is a bill to crack down on these big drug companies that pay lower-cost generic drug companies to keep their less expensive products off the market longer," Smith said.  

On immigration, the two said President Trump should not attempt to eliminate birthright citizenship by executive order. They also appeared to agree that immigration policy is ripe for reform. 

  Housley said she supports the president's stated intent to deploy military troops in response to the group of people from Central American countries making their way toward the U.S. border. Smith noted they're hundreds of miles away. If they do arrive at the border, Smith said immigration officials should treat them the same way they treat other people that arrive there, according to the law. 

  They agreed that the U.S. needs to hold the government of Saudi Arabia accountable for the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and that Trump's negotiations with North Korea were a good move. Both said proposed precious metal mining in northern Minnesota should move forward with environmental protections. And they spoke about their efforts to encourage more renewable energy.

  On guns, Smith called for universal background checks. Housley said the solution to gun violence lies in paying more attention to people's mental health, not passing more firearms restrictions.  

Smith and Housley meet for their final debate at the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul, hosted by MPR News and broadcast live at 5 p.m. Sunday.