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GRAND RAPIDS, MINN. - Facing one of the stiffest challenges of his 18 terms in Congress, Rep. Jim Oberstar squared off Friday night with Republican Chip Cravaack at a forum that focused primarily on one question: How can the government stimulate job growth?
About 200 voters packed an amphitheater at Itasca Community College in Grand Rapids, situated on the western corner of the Iron Range. Cravaack is making an aggressive run at Oberstar's seat in the sprawling Eighth District, a longtime DFL stronghold spanning from Ely to Mille Lacs.
The 90-minute debate was largely without interruption, a contrast from one earlier in Duluth where a raucous crowd jeered Oberstar. The Democratic congressman issued a statement comparing the atmosphere to a "professional wrestling match" and calling for a "civil exchange" in Grand Rapids.
Friday's discussion zeroed in on whether the stimulus program worked and if the Bush tax cuts should be extended.
Oberstar, whose gavel on the Transportation Committee made him a key player in the stimulus bill, defended the program's effect on job creation.
"The stimulus program brought about investment in our highways, bridges, our transit systems, roadways," he said. "We need more of that kind of investment."
Cravaack argued that the stimulus added to the deficit while not living up to its goal of alleviating national unemployment. He said more effectively stimulating the private sector would create added cash flow for infrastructure projects.
On whether Congress should extend President George W. Bush's tax cuts, Cravaack said they should be extended to rejuvenate business growth.
Oberstar said he would eliminate the tax break for the top 2 percent of the income bracket, claiming that the Bush tax cuts "put us into this recession that we're in today."
Both candidates oppose abortion rights. Cravaack has snagged key anti-abortion endorsements from Oberstar, however, because of the congressman's support for the health care bill, which some groups believe allows for federal funding of abortion.
"No funding for abortion is in this bill," Oberstar said. He noted that the Hyde Amendment has long barred federal funding of abortion.
"[Anti-abortion groups have] already said that this is the worst legislation since Roe versus Wade," Cravaack rebutted.
While Oberstar said there is not "much to change" in the bill, Cravaack argued it needs to be repealed and replaced with something else.
One issue not likely being discussed in any other congressional race this year is the America's Commitment to Clean Water Act, an Oberstar bill that is a common topic among Cravaack supporters. The bill alters previous law to allow the federal government to regulate pollution in all U.S. waters, including "wet meadows." Cravaack called it a "land grab" and said it is "an overreach by the federal government."
Oberstar said his bill merely clarifies a flawed Supreme Court decision regarding how the words "navigable waters" should be interpreted in the original Clean Water Act. "They didn't agree on what 'navigable' means," he said. "They did not write a clear decision. We need to clarify it."
Eric Roper • 612-673-1732