Kerrey challenges Fischer's views in second debate

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) - U.S. Senate candidates Deb Fischer and Bob Kerrey agreed in their second debate Friday that the government must transform its entitlement programs, including scaling back Social Security, but Kerrey charged that Fischer's plan for cutting federal spending was impractical and would cause serious damage to the economy.

Kerrey, a Democrat, aggressively questioned Fischer's views on fiscal issues during the hour-long event at the Omaha Community Playhouse as he presses to make up ground in the six weeks before the November election. Recent polls have Fischer, a Republican, leading by 10 points in the race to replace Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson, who is retiring.

It has been more than a month since the pair first debated at the Nebraska State Fair in Grand Island, when they took up issues such as immigration and the route of the proposed Keystone XL oil pipeline. Friday's debate took on a tougher tone as the pair aimed to sharply define their differences.

Kerrey - a former Nebraska governor and two-term U.S. Senator - all but ridiculed Fischer's backing of a balanced-budget amendment to address the nation's debt, saying such an approach was overly simplistic.

"I've looked at your plan," Kerrey said. "Your balanced budget amendment would double unemployment in this state. It's a fact. This is not me exaggerating here."

Fischer, a rancher from rural Valentine and a two-term state senator, shot back that without controls on congressional spending, politicians "will spend every dime they can get their hands on," adding that Nebraska has a constitutional requirement to balance its budget every year.

"First of all, you balanced the budget in 2009 and 2010 with Nebraska's (share) of federal stimulus money," Kerrey retorted. "That was the second highest use of stimulus money to balance the budget of any state in the nation. The federal government would not have that flexibility under the Fischer plan, under her constitutional amendment."

The two also disagreed on how to reform federal programs like Social Security and Medicare.

Kerrey's plan would expand the payroll tax to higher income levels and would gradually increase the age of eligibility for benefits to 69 in 2075. Fischer's plan would increase the retirement age for people who are now younger than 40 and would limit benefits for the wealthy.

Both candidates strived to take cautious, balanced positions when asked whether America has become an entitlement nation. The question stemmed from the recent release of videotaped remarks by GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney in which he said 47 percent of Americans don't pay income taxes and many feel entitled to government support.

Fischer distanced herself from Romney's words, saying that government must help those in need.

"To make comments - on both sides - in trying to divide ... the people of this country; that serves no purpose," she said. "People sometimes need help and government should be there for them."

Kerrey, on the other hand, said "there's a grain of truth" in comments that America has become an entitlement nation.

While he doesn't view Social Security and Medicare beneficiaries as "moochers," Kerrey said, those programs amount to a $60 trillion unfunded liability that works out to "$400,000 worth of debt for every person in the workforce."

"It's way too easy to demagogue this stuff," he said. "I've listened to both President Obama and Gov. Romney both demagogue and misrepresent the facts of what's going on with both of these programs. We've got a huge problem here, and we've got to address it. If we don't address it, it won't be long before we're Greece."

Fischer and Kerrey will meet for a third debate on Monday in Lincoln.

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