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Burns, Tester Trade Quips, Accusations in First Debate Sunday in Whitefish

Location: Whitefish, MT

Posted: Sunday, Jun 25, 2006 - 11:45:53 pm MDT
The Daily Inter Lake

Jon Tester, Democratic Party candidate for U.S. Senate, challenges Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., Sunday morning at a debate sponsored by the Montana Broadcasters Association at Grouse Mountain Lodge. The Senate race has been deemed "one of the most pivotal in the country," according to moderator Greg MacDonald. Karen Nichols /Daily Inter Lake

Round One
Burns, Tester trade quips, accusations in first debate Sunday in Whitefish

Differences about Iraq and foreign policy, along with similarities on immigration and border security, emerged in a Sunday debate between Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., and Jon Tester, his Democratic rival.

Broadcast live from the Grouse Mountain Lodge in Whitefish, the debate was mostly good-natured, with occasional barbed exchanges between the two candidates. Moderator Greg MacDonald, who is president of the sponsoring Montana Broadcasters Association, said that the race has been deemed "one of the most pivotal in the country" in determining whether Democrats or Republicans control the U.S. Senate after the November election.

Tester, who is president of the Montana Senate, stressed the need for a change in representing the state in Washington, D.C., while Burns touted his record of "delivering for Montana" in the three terms since he first was elected in 1988.

On Iraq, Burns said "there is no substitute for winning, and we are." Although the United States faces a long effort in securing Iraq, that effort has produced progress that cannot be abandoned, he said.

"If we cut and run — and we can't cut and run — then it will end up like Vietnam," Burns said.

Tester said he supports the War on Terror and the invasion of Afghanistan, but said the United States "went into Iraq under false pretenses," a reference to the failure to find weapons of mass destruction.

At one point Burns retorted, referring to recent revelations that chemical artillery shells have been recovered in Iraq, and he said that Saddam Hussein financed Palestinian suicide bombers and al-Qaida did have a presence in Iraq.

But Tester said the decision to invade Iraq was predicated on the belief that Iraqis were developing nuclear capabilities. He said the United States needs a strategy for getting out of Iraq.

"The fact is that the president had a plan to get in, and he needs to have a plan to redeploy those troops," he said.

Asked by MacDonald whether the U.S. has been absent wrongfully in responding to human-rights violations in Sudan and elsewhere in Africa, Tester said the war in Iraq has stretched America's resources and its ability to respond to problems elsewhere in the world.

Tester also criticized the Bush administration's support of the U.S. Patriot Act and its data mining intelligence programs as infringements on civil liberties.

Burns said President Bush has an obligation to provide law enforcement and intelligence with the "tools" to effectively thwart terrorist activity in the U.S.

"We haven't been hit in this country since Sept. 11 ... We have to use the same tools that we use on drug dealers and super crooks," Burns said.

On immigration, Tester said he does not support "amnesty" for illegal immigrants and wants to see improved border and port security, along with enforcement of existing laws governing immigrants and their American employers. He said he does not favor building a fence along the U.S.-Mexican border but supports increased border patrols.

Burns pressed Tester on how he would have voted on immigration bill recently approved by the U.S. Senate. Tester said he wasn't familiar with the details of that bill, and reiterated his immigration positions.

"Thanks for taking my position" on immigration, Burns quipped.

"You know, you're not wrong all the time," Tester retorted.

On energy, Tester said Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer has "good ideas" about coal-to-gas conversion technology for the vast coal deposits in eastern Montana. And he said the United States and Montana have "incredible opportunities in renewable energy, such as the new wind farm at Judith Gap and ethanol technology.

Burns said that the Judith Gap wind farm wouldn't have been possible without tax credits that he and Sen. Pete Dominici, R-N.M., advanced. He said the country's dependence on outside energy sources comes from a Democratic resistance to energy development.

"We haven't built a refinery in this country for 30 years ... Every time we try to do anything with energy it's been shut down by the other side of the aisle," he said.

Burns asked Tester whether he would support oil production in the Alaskan National Wildlife Reserve.

"The problem with ANWR is it isn't long-term," Tester said. He added that blame for the country's energy dependence should rest with Republicans, the party that has controlled Congress and the White House for the past six years.

On fiscal matters, Burns accused Tester of being a taxer. "Jon doesn't want to support the Bush, Burns, Baucus tax cuts of 2001," Burns said, referring to the tax cuts supported by himself and Max Baucus, Montana's Democratic senator.

Tester, in turn, accused Burns of being part of the Washington, D.C., spending problem.

"You cannot make the claim that you're not a borrower and spender, because you are," Tester said. "We're passing an incredible debt to our kids."

Burns said a booming economy is generating increasing Treasury revenues that allow for deficit reduction. But Tester again referred to excessive spending.

"You haven't helped," he said. "You continue to spend money like a drunken sailor back there in Washington, D.C."

"It's time for a change in Washington, D.C.," Tester said in his closing remarks.

"This election really isn't about Democrats and Republicans," he said. "In reality, it's about Montana vs. Washington, D.C."

Burns, in closing, said that Montana's economy was stagnant when he was first elected, with good job opportunities limited to mining, timber or agriculture.

He cited a litany of improvements in telecommunications and infrastructure technology that he said he had a hand in delivering to Montana during the past 18 years. The result, he said, has been a growing, diversified economy.

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