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Klobuchar and Bills debate economics in low-key session

The pair discussed fiscal issues and the search for compromise on Capitol Hill in their third debate of the campaign.

Screen shots of Republican candidate Kurt Bills and Sen. Amy Klobuchar during Tuesday morning's debate.

Economic issues took center stage Tuesday morning at a U.S. Senate debate between Sen. Amy Klobuchar and her Republican challenger, Kurt Bills.

The debate was decidedly more low-key than the one the pair held at the State Fair in August.

The policy differences were just as sharp as before, but neither candidate seemed as willing to bash the other as frequently as they did in front of a rowdy, supporter-filled crowd in Falcon Heights.

That’s not to say Klobuchar and Bills sheathed their swords entirely. Klobuchar again hit Bills for supporting what she called an extreme budget resolution proposed by Sen. Rand Paul, and when the topic turned to the Federal Reserve, she reminded the audience that Bills has said he supports ending, not simply auditing, the Fed.

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Bills’ response: “Why would she attack me and call me extreme? I’m a public school teacher. How extreme is that?” He also attacked her for her oft-emphasized focus on bipartisanship, implying it was a political tactic rather than an actual lawmaking strategy in Washington.

“We should do more than just poll and find that if you say ‘bipartisan’ 15 times in a debate, that’s the way forward,” he said.

The pair debated fiscal issues exclusively, including the so-called “fiscal cliff” that faces the country at the end of the year. With the Bush-era tax cuts set to expire and $110 billion in spending cuts scheduled to kick in, officials warn that congressional action is needed to prevent a recession, but Bills said he’s concerned Congress, and the Senate in particular, will not act on it, citing the lack of a Senate-passed budget resolution for more than three years.

He didn’t get into specifics, but said he’d be willing to vote for a compromise bill.

“This great compromise will come forward, and even though I’m a staunch conservative, when it comes time to vote to move this country forward, I will make that vote, and I will make it not for my party, but for all the kids that I’ve taught,” said Bills, a high school economics teacher. [Update: Here’s Kurt Bills on taxes and deficit reduction, and why he knows it goes against a no-new-taxes pledge he signed earlier in the campaign.]

Klobuchar again voiced her support for a $4 trillion, 10-year deficit reduction package, consisting of, in part:

• The $2.2 trillion saved under the deficit reduction passed by Congress last year;

• $750 billion in new income by raising taxes on income greater than $250,000 a year;

• $200 billion in savings by negotiating for prescription drugs under Medicare Part D;

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• Ending oil subsidies, to the tune of $40 billion in savings.

Klobuchar also defended the 2010 deficit reduction law, called the Budget Control Act, as a de facto budget because it cut spending and set limits on spending going forward. It was more of a compromise plan than the Paul budget Bills supports, she said; it failed, receiving 83 “no” votes in the Senate.

But Bills said that was simply what he personally supported and not what he actually thought would be passed into law. It was a starting point for negotiations, he said.

“This is what I think the way forward should be, but that’s not going to be forward, I know that, but I want people to know what my feelings are,” he said.

He put the point in the context of education: finding ways to cut down on the number of federal science, technology, engineering and math programs, rather than gutting them altogether, and dismissing both the No Child Left Behind program introduced by President Bush and the Race to the Top program put in place by Obama.

“The people who are not offering solutions are the people who are going to take Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security off the cliff,” he said. 

After the debate, Sen. Amy Klobuchar spoke with The UpTake’s Mike McIntee.

Since the debate was held in Duluth, both candidates tailored parts of their message to the Northland. Klobuchar talked about bills she’s supported to boost the forest and tourism industries and recent expansions to the Duluth airport and the Port of Duluth. She emphasized “real results for real people.”

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Bills tried to tie himself to one of the Northland’s most colorful and popular liberals, retiring state Rep. Tom Rukavina, saying both of them voted against a school funding shift on similar economic grounds.

“It’s not a hit on Republicans or Democrats — it’s a hit on the system as a whole,” he said. “We need people to work together.”

Klobuchar and Bills have debated twice before, at the Fair and at Farmfest in August. They’ll debate a fourth and final time the weekend before the election in November.

Devin Henry can be reached at