Tension rises as Biggert, Foster debate Medicare, immigration

October 24, 2012

The normally sedate candidates running for Congress in the southwest suburbs spiced things up a bit during their final debate Wednesday night, as they clashed on entitlement reform, immigration and taxes.

Incumbent Republican U.S. Rep. Judy Biggert and Democrat Bill Foster, himself a former congressman, went head-to-head for the final time before the Nov. 6 election during a sit-down debate aired on WTTW-TV.

The race for Illinois’ newly redrawn 11th Congressional District has been more subdued than some of Illinois’ other heated congressional contests. But as both parties look to a handful of Illinois races that could decide control of the House, the high stakes showed through in some testy exchanges Wednesday night.

When moderator Phil Ponce asked whether the candidates would support giving Medicare beneficiaries the option of receiving a government “voucher” to help buy private insurance, the very word touched off a scuffle.

It has become a loaded one this election season, as Democrats have claimed GOP Vice Presidential Candidate Paul Ryan’s budget blueprint would turn Medicare into a government voucher system. Foster said he opposes “voucherizing” Medicare because those payments might not cover the cost of a private insurance option, thereby requiring seniors to pony up more money for health insurance.

But Biggert took issue with the very word: “It’s not a voucher. It’s premium subsidies.”

Foster interrupted to say Ryan himself has called the program a voucher on his website, but Biggert shot back.

“I don’t care what he calls it,” she said. “I care what I – how I call it. So let’s not get down to the nitty gritty.”

(The link provided by Foster's campaign links to an article reposted on Ryan's website, though Ryan is not the author.)

Biggert accused Foster of trying to “scare seniors,” and suggested payments from the government to insurance companies to help defer the cost of health care could help prevent Medicare from going broke down the road.

The tension rose again when the candidates were asked their positionson the so-called DREAM Act, which would put an end to deportations of young people who came to the U.S. illegally as children.

“I feel really bad about these young people that came here and, through no fault of their own, are here illegally,” Biggert said, but added that they shouldn’t be given priority over people who’ve been waiting to immigrate legally.

Foster jumped in to say he voted in favor of the DREAM Act, while Biggert opposed it.

“So her position is she feels really bad, but she voted no,” Foster said.

“Well, I’m glad that you’re telling everybody what my position is,” Biggert interrupted. “I think that I’ve already stated it.”

Biggert added she thinks an overhaul of the entire immigration system - not just for young people - should come first.

On taxes, Foster said he “held his nose and voted for” the Bush-era tax cuts for people making more than $250,000 while he was in the House because middle-class tax cuts were being “held hostage.” Foster now says he’d let those upper-class tax cuts expire.

“Look where wealthy people put their investments these days,” Foster said. “One-third of it is put into non-productive investments. You know, yachts, jewelry, rich people’s toys.”

Biggert, for her part, said she “wouldn’t want to raise taxes on the middle class, and I wouldn’t want to lower taxes on the well-off.”

When asked about gay marriage, Biggert said the issue should be left to states, and pointed to a pair of lawsuits now working through the courts that challenge Illinois’ ban on same-sex marriage. But Biggert, who’s gotten backing from a pro-gay rights super PAC during her campaign, said her own views on same sex marriage are evolong, and she’s “close to reaching for the gay marriages,” pending some legal concerns about estate planning.

Foster said he unequivocally supports same-sex marriage.

The race for the 11th District has been one of the most closely watched in the country, as both parties jockey for control over the U.S. House.

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