BOZEMAN — U.S. Sen. Jon Tester sought at a debate Saturday night to interject a new attack into a Senate race full of well-worn accusations by arguing that his Republican opponent Denny Rehberg is flip-flopping on Medicare.
The two squared off Saturday night in Bozeman for a fourth and final debate — and neither was pulling punches.
Polls show that the race remains tight, ensuring it remains one of the highest-profile Senate battles in the nation as both sides vie for control of the chamber. Montana airwaves have been dominated with attack advertising fueled by millions of dollars in outside spending.
Saturday's debate gave both candidates a chance to directly challenge their opponent and make an appeal directly to voters.
Rehberg has made hay on the campaign trail by pointing out he was one of a few Republicans earlier this year to oppose the controversial budget proposal from GOP Vice Presidential candidate Paul Ryan. Rehberg has said a large part of his opposition stemmed from the Medicare voucher portion of the plan that Rehberg argued had not been properly vetted back home.
But Tester pointed out Saturday night that Rehberg had indeed voted for a similar voucher program back in 2009 when Ryan had previously proposed it with a House budget amendment.
Such a voucher program would instead give seniors a government subsidy check and turn them to the private insurance market — a voucher that Democrats and seniors advocates argue won't come close to covering health care costs and would result in a big increase in out-of-pocket expenses. Republicans argue such changes are needed to save Medicare from a future of increasing costs and big shortfalls.
The Rehberg campaign said that vote required big programs to come back for stand-alone votes prior to implementation — at which point Rehberg has opposed the voucher program.
"I will never vote to privatize Social Security. I will never vote to privatize Medicare," Rehberg said in response to Tester's accusation.
Rehberg then accused Tester of cutting Medicare in the federal health care program — a charge Tester said is wrong. The health care bill does not cut direct benefits to recipients — but it does cut payments to providers.
Rehberg said Tester is engaging in "Washington speak" by denying the federal health care reform cuts Medicare.
"The problem is the doctors won't be able to see us because the doctors won't be able to afford to see us," Rehberg said.
Tester offered several lengthy defenses of the health care bill, saying it holds insurance companies accountable, will help the uninsured and has already helped those with pre-existing conditions.
Both candidates came ready to tangle on familiar issues — and there were plenty of sharp exchanges.
Rehberg blamed Obama administration environmental policies — and Tester's failed intervention — for the announcement from PPL Montana that they will in three years close a coal-fired power plant near Billings.
"That is the problem: the EPA is running amok in Washington D.C." Rehberg said.
Tester said PPL is a bad actor that has in the past tried to avoid paying Montana taxes and argued it announced a closure three years from now for political reasons. He said PPL has more than enough money to make the required environmental upgrades at the plant.
Tester argued that Rehberg is only out for himself and his "rich buddies."
At one point Rehberg told Tester: "It is obvious you will do or say anything to keep your job."
The final debate carried the largest potential audience. Debate host Montana Television Network said its network of CBS affiliates reaches every household in the state. The debate was scheduled to be recast on those stations Sunday morning, and on public television later in the week.