New Hampshire Senate candidates Paul Hodes and Kelly Ayotte clearly differed Wednesday on one of the hottest topics facing Congress today: What to do about the tax cuts for the wealthy.
Hodes, a Democratic congressman, said in the live forum broadcast on public radio that the country can't afford the $700 billion price tag to renew the tax cut for the wealthiest, which is set to expire.
"That would double the deficit. We can't afford to do that," Hodes said.
Ayotte, a Republican and former attorney general, said just the opposite, that extending the tax cut would pump $300 million into New Hampshire's economy to help small businesses create jobs.
"It's the wrong philosophy to raise taxes during this difficult economic times as Congressman Hodes would like to do," Ayotte said.
The expiration of Bush-era tax cuts in January has led to partisan bickering in Washington over which tax cuts should be extended. Republicans want to extend all the tax cuts, and President Barack Obama - along with Democratic leaders in Congress - want to extend them for people making less than $200,000 and married couples making less than $250,000.
Extending the tax cuts for middle- and low-income workers would add more than $3 trillion to the national debt during the next decade. Extending them for top earners as well would add an addition $700 billion.
Ayotte and Hodes faced each other for the first time since last week's U.S. Senate primary. The forum focused on business and the economy, and the two found little common ground, even disagreeing on what it means to be a fiscal conservative.
Ayotte said being fiscally conservative means cutting spending and balancing the federal budget. She said she would ask agencies to propose 20 percent cuts to their budgets to open a discussion of what could be trimmed. She criticized Hodes repeatedly for raising the federal deficit during his four years in Congress.
"Ms. Ayotte ascribes to me powers I only wish I had," Hodes responded.
Hodes said being fiscally conservative means digging out of the economic hole Republicans left to Democrats. He repeated that he would not extend the tax break for wealthier Americans and would go after wasteful spending.
Both agreed they would not seek earmarks, special spending requests by members of Congress. But Ayotte jumped on Hodes for converting to that position after voting for 9,000 earmarks last year.
Ayotte also criticized Hodes' support for the economic stimulus bill, which she said created temporary jobs.
"The role of government is to create pro-growth policies," she said.
Hodes defended his vote for stimulus funding as necessary to stabilize "an economy in absolute freefall."
"Nobody wanted to make those investments, but it had to be done. It was an emergency," he said.
They differed on health care reforms as well. Ayotte supports repealing the reforms and letting the private market deal with the issue. She criticized the reforms as a government takeover of health care.
Hodes countered saying the reforms aren't a government takeover and will provide the same access to care that members of Congress enjoy. He said problems in the law should be fixed rather than repealing the law.
Ayotte opposes extending unemployment benefits unless they are funded; Hodes said jobless workers "should not be left out in the cold."
She opposes increasing the minimum wage; Hodes supports a cost of living adjustment and ultimately ensuring the wage is enough to live on.
She would leave sick leave policies to employers; he supports guaranteed paid sick leave for workers.
Hodes would not raise the retirement age for Social Security; Ayotte would consider it for younger workers.
Hodes would reinstate the inheritance tax with exemptions; Ayotte opposes its reinstatement.
Ayotte would target any jobs incentives universally, not specifically to alternative energy jobs; Hodes favors specific tax credits to support the industry as a move away from reliance on fossil fuel.
Hodes supports a $250 million passenger rail project connecting Nashua to Concord; Ayotte said finishing improvements to Interstate 93 may be a greater priority.
They did agree that small businesses are the backbone of New Hampshire's economy.