In their only scheduled debate, U.S. Rep. John Spratt and Republican challenger Mick Mulvaney laid out starkly different visions of the federal government, in areas ranging from health care and taxes to immigration and energy reform.
The economy is in "terrible" shape due largely to irresponsible governing under President George W. Bush, Spratt told a sold-out audience of 220 people packed into the River Hills Country Club.
But Mulvaney put the blame on Democrats, saying recent policies have made it more difficult for businesses to hire and expand. Nothing has hurt more than health care reform, which should be immediately repealed, Mulvaney said.
"The biggest thing we can do to keep the jobs we have now is to repeal the health care bill," Mulvaney said.
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The debate hosted the River Hills Lions Club marked the first meeting between Spratt, a 28-year incumbent Democrat from York, and Mulvaney, a first-term state senator from Indian Land.
Spratt defended his vote in favor of health care, saying small businesses can take advantage of numerous tax credits, and Americans with pre-existing conditions can gain access to more affordable care.
Democrats plan to cut the deficit in half in the next four to five years with a disciplined approach that caps spending and follows strict pay-go rules, Spratt said. In the near-term, President Barack Obama's stimulus package set the stage for a recovery, Spratt contended.
"You can only balance the budget if you're moving in the same direction as the economy," he said.
Mulvaney voiced support for extending the Bush tax cuts set to expire in January. He said estate taxes should be eliminated because a family member's death shouldn't trigger more taxes.
"I don't believe small business needs government," Mulvaney said. "I believe small business needs government to get out of the way."
Spratt countered that he could support a one-year extension of the Bush tax cuts while the economy recovers. As for estate taxes, Spratt said he's open to a compromise that sets a per-person cap at $3.5 million before the so-called death tax kicks in.
The night's most dramatic moment came when Spratt brought up his opponent's role in Edenmoor, a planned development community in Indian Land that involved bond money to pay for public improvements such as streets, sidewalks and sewer lines.
Spratt called it "odd" that Mulvaney, a former real estate developer, would ask Lancaster County Council members to play a role in responsibilities typically handled by developers.
"It just strikes me as strange that people who vouch to be conservative when it comes to their personal values" take a different approach in business, Spratt said.
A surprised Mulvaney called the comment an unwarranted personal attack that had no place in the debate. Mulvaney has said he sold his ownership stake in Edenmoor in 2005 and that the only bonds issued were private.
"I am stunned," Mulvaney responded. "And I don't do stunned easily."
Afterward, Mulvaney blasted Spratt for bringing up the issue.
"I thought it was beneath him as a congressman," Mulvaney said. "I think Mr. Spratt was talking about something he might not be familiar with."
Mulvaney told reporters that he wants to hold debates in each of the 14 counties in the 5th Congressional District. Spratt signaled he's open to more meetings - including an upcoming debate on S.C. ETV - but did not specify dates or locations.
"There will be, I'm sure, a number of different forums," Spratt said.