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Owens, Doheny square off in Watertown debate


CANTON - On everything from entitlements to drug testing welfare recipients to trade with China, Rep. William L. Owens and Matthew A. Doheny accused each other in a debate Thursday night of either lacking real solutions to pressing problems or failing for the past three years to solve them.

Their last scheduled appearance before the Nov. 6 congressional election was punctuated by avoidance: Mr. Owens, D-Plattsburgh, avoided eye contact with a confrontational and aggressive Mr. Doheny, and in turn accused Mr. Doheny of avoiding questions from the moderators.

“The north country has to do better,” Mr. Doheny, a Watertown Republican, said at the beginning of the debate at Jefferson Community College, sponsored by cable news network YNN.

Said Mr. Owens in his closing statement: “We must all move forward together.”

On entitlements, moderator Liz Benjamin asked Mr. Owens whether he would support cuts to entitlement programs as part of a deal to let President George W. Bush’s tax cuts for high-income earners expire. Mr. Owens said as long as they were done in a way that is not partisan, he would.

He elaborated in an interview later that he does not think such cuts need to affect benefits for anyone — whether for today’s seniors or for those who will be eligible for Social Security and Medicare in 40 years.

“I don’t think it’s necessary” to curtail benefits, Mr. Owens said.

Mr. Owens opposes raising the retirement age and making the wealthy pay more for Medicare or receive less in Social Security benefits.

Mr. Doheny said the same for current recipients and enrollees. But on benefit cuts for people his age or younger — he’s 42 — Mr. Doheny said, “Then we’re having a different discussion.”

“We have a serious fiscal problem,” he said. “You have to have all options on the table to stop the out-of-control spending.”

On drug testing welfare recipients, Mr. Doheny said again he supports doing so. In an interview earlier this week with the Post-Star editorial board in Glens Falls, Mr. Doheny said the government should make sure people receiving public assistance are not using the money to buy drugs.

Moderator Bill Carey asked Mr. Doheny why only federal aid for the poor should have such strings attached. Mr. Doheny said drug testing is not unfair to the poor, while other beneficiaries such as Medicare enrollees should not have the same burden because they have paid into the system.

Mr. Owens said drug testing welfare recipients has been proven not to work. Mr. Doheny’s solution to a nonexistent problem, Mr. Owens said, would end up costing more money in the long run. Mr. Doheny responded by accusing Mr. Owens of spending trillions in Washington over the past three years.

According to a 1996 study by the National Institutes of Health, a government research agency, welfare recipients do not abuse drugs or alcohol more often than people who do not depend on those programs.

The candidates traded barbs on trade with China during the debate’s “cross examination” section, when the candidates were allowed to ask each other a question. Mr. Owens asked Mr. Doheny whether he believes the United States is in a trade war with the rising power. After Mr. Doheny responded — accusing Mr. Owens of risking a hike in prices of everyday goods by creating a trade war — Mr. Owens said Mr. Doheny had not answered his question.

When it was Mr. Doheny’s turn, he asked Mr. Owens about a series of votes he took in Washington with which he disagreed.

Pausing for a moment, Mr. Owens deadpanned that he couldn’t respond because: “I still have a question pending.”

Mr. Owens believes the United States should label China as a currency manipulator, which means it artificially lowers or raises the value of its money to help its economy. In return, the United States should consider levying taxes on Chinese goods to “level the playing field,” Mr. Owens believes.

In response, Mr. Doheny said the United States is actually the world’s biggest currency manipulator. The Federal Reserve buys 77 percent of the debt issued by the Treasury, Mr. Doheny said.

Democrats are likely to pounce on the remarks; within a half-hour after the debate, Democratic political activists had posted a video of the exchange with the title: “Doheny blames America, not China for currency manipulation.”

About two-thirds of the Sturtz Theater’s seats were filled, mostly with decided voters, a distillate of union members, AARP volunteers, area Republican leaders and some tea party activists.

Each of the candidates had his own cheering section.

Mr. Doheny “was very good at pointing out differences in their approaches and flaws in (Mr. Owens’s) record,” said John D. Peck, a Republican Jefferson County legislator. “He needs to hammer on that record.”

Linda M. Sandri, the Lewis County Democratic Party Committee chairwoman, deemed Mr. Owens the winner in an interview outside the theater as attendees trickled out.

“Bill Owens had a much more positive outlook,” she said. A few seconds later, Mr. Owens walked by and gave her a hug. “It’s an outlook that has a lot of substance.”

Because the interview was cut short, Ms. Sandri summed up Mr. Doheny’s performance: “You can say the opposite about Doheny. Very negative.”

Donald G.M. Coon III, the Jefferson County Republican Party Committee chairman, was asked whether Mr. Doheny’s aggressive performance was an indication of a candidate who is trailing in the polls. A supporter of Mr. Doheny, Mr. Coon said no.

“Incumbents have a built-in advantage,” he said. “You have to be a little bit of a scrapper.”

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