MANATEE -- It was a slugfest Thursday as Democratic challenger Keith Fitzgerald and Republican incumbent U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan sparred in a televised debate about Medicare and Social Security, how to balance the federal budget and each other's ethics as elected officials.
The moderator stepped in several times to separate the two District 16 congressional candidates when the discussion became too heated, as each one vied to win voters over to his point of view.
Buchanan said the Obama administration had cut $716 billion out of the Medicare program to pay for its overhaul of the nation's healthcare system.
Fitzgerald agreed on the amount, but argued that a bipartisan commission had said the money constituted overpayments to insurance companies.
"Rep. Buchanan's plan was to actually take that, and use it for tax cuts for the wealthiest people," Fitzgerald said. "He should really understand
what he's voting for when he votes for it, because he voted for that $716 billion cut two different times."
Buchanan countered that if his challenger were elected, the region would suffer devastating Medicare cuts of $2.2 billion.
"Their cuts are very real: Obamacare raids Medicare and goes into Obamacare to pay for it," Buchanan said.
Moderator Chris Wille, the Bradenton Herald's editorial page editor, on several occasions stepped in to halt the debate when it wandered off the subject or became bogged down in recrimination.
In answer to a question about how the Social Security program, which aids retirees and the disabled, should be reformed to ensure its future solvency, both men agreed the program is solvent for many years to come.
However, that's where their agreement ended.
Fitzgerald said Buchanan had voted against an amendment protecting Social Security from privatization, and demanded a firm commitment that Buchanan would not support privatizing either Medicare or Social Security, and would reject Republican vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan's plan to "voucherize" Medicare.
"I have no interest in privatizing Social Security, so let's just make that very clear," Buchanan replied.
As for Medicare, the federal health insurance program for seniors and the disabled, Buchanan explained that the Ryan plan doesn't affect anyone 55 and older.
"So, Medicare for them, everything for them, stays the same," he said. "Under 55, you can either take traditional Medicare, or you can take an option like a federal employee or something else, so it gives you some choices, so that's the difference.
"My biggest issue here is seniors that are over 65, we have 200,000 55 and older, almost 300,000, is to make sure these programs are viable long-term," Buchanan said.
"And I think the way we make them viable is, we have got to get our financial house in order. ...We can't afford to continue to run up these kinds of deficits because it's going to bury us."
Both men expressed concern that continued trillion-dollar budget deficits might drain funds needed to keep entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare solvent.
"I do agree that a crucial thing in order to make sure that Social Security is there for everybody is to actually make sure that we get control of the budget deficit," said Fitzgerald.
He criticized Buchanan's hope of passage for a constitutional balanced-budget amendment.
"We have a difference about how to do it, because I have a realistic plan, and he's got a gimmick that's never going to pass, and he knows it," Fitzgerald said.
At one point, the two accused each other of ethical lapses, with Buchanan alleging Fitzgerald had financially aided his employer, New College, as a legislator; and Fitzgerald accusing Buchanan of pandering to special interests, and raising large amounts of money for the Republican Party.
Fitzgerald also referred to numerous investigations of Buchanan's political and business practices -- all but one of which have been closed with no action taken against Buchanan. (A remaining probe by the House Ethics Committee remains pending.)
The congressman noted that despite Fitzgerald's best efforts, he trails far behind in the polls.
Buchanan, 61, of Longboat Key, is a businessman who has served in Congress six years. Fitzgerald, 55, of Sarasota, is a former Florida House member and a New College professor.
The debate was sponsored by the Bradenton Herald and held at the METV Studios. It is featured on the Bradenton Herald's website, www.bradenton.com, and will be broadcast on METV until the election.
Sara Kennedy, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7031. Follow her on Twitter @sarawrites.com.