By Emily Wagster Pettus/The Associated Press
OXFORD — North Mississippi congressional candidates exchanged sharp words at a debate Tuesday night about how loyal each would be to his party’s leadership on Capitol Hill.
U.S. Rep. Travis Childers, a Democrat, said he’s been an independent voice since being elected just over two years ago and has tried to work across the aisle with Republicans when he thinks they have good ideas.
Republican challenger Alan Nunnelee said Childers has done too little to block legislation pushed by Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, including the massive federal health care overhaul that became law earlier this year. Childers voted against the health care bill, but Nunnelee said that wasn’t enough.
“I think we need somebody there to hold that liberal agenda accountable,” Nunnelee said during a debate at the University of Mississippi.
Childers, who was elected in 2008, said he thinks the health bill is too expensive and too broad. He said Republicans share some blame.
“If his party had come to the table and worked on that bill, I think it could’ve been a better bill,” Childers said, gesturing toward Nunnelee. “Both parties love to jump to the extremes — one to the right, one to the left. And it leaves north Mississippi people like me out.”
Nunnelee said that if elected, he’ll do “whatever is necessary to get that horrible bill off the books,” but he wants some changes in the health care system, including allowing people to buy health insurance across state lines and placing limits on medical malpractice lawsuits.
Childers said the new law has some strong features that need to stay in place, including provisions allowing people up to age 26 to stay on their parents’ health insurance and blocking insurance companies from denying coverage because of pre-existing conditions.
The university-sponsored debate Tuesday night was the candidates’ only face-to-face exchange of the fall campaign. Seven independent or third-party candidates will also appear on the Nov. 2 ballot in the 1st District, but they weren’t invited to participate in the debate.
Nunnelee repeatedly said Democrats have taken the country in the wrong direction the past two years, and criticized the party for a rise in unemployment, the passage of economic stimulus packages and the increase in the federal debt.
Childers said that Nunnelee, who is chairman of the state Senate Appropriations Committee, wouldn’t have been able to balance the state budget without federal stimulus funds.
“He took the stimulus money that he’s so quick to criticize, hypocritically, I might add,” Childers said. “He’s so quick to criticize it, but yet he raked in $600 million to fill every hole in the state budget and left teachers on the sidelines, left classrooms overflowing when he could have done something about it and he didn’t.”
Nunnelee characterized his own candidacy as “a crusade to save America.”
“We can’t afford another 22,000 lost jobs in the 1st Congressional District. We can’t afford another $800 billion of debt,” Nunnelee said. “So tonight, we say ‘no more.’ No more excessive spending. No more borrowing from our grandchildren and their grandchildren.”