Alexi Giannoulias, the Illinois Democrat running for President Obama’s old Senate seat, said Sunday that he wants to “reform” the president’s health care overhaul, and that the $814 billion stimulus was imperfect but that it prevented Americans from standing in soup lines.
Giannoulias, who appeared on NBC’s “Meet the Press” to debate Republican Mark Kirk, was on the defensive throughout the debate regarding Obama’s policies, as well as his past work for his family’s community bank and its ties to mob figures.
The race between the two is one of the 13 Democratic-held seats that Republicans hope to capture in their quest for 10, the number they need to flip to retake the Senate. Kirk has led in the polls for the last several weeks, but only by a point or two.
Before getting into both candidate’s credibility issues, however, the nationally televised debate focused on the nation’s debt and spending levels.
Giannoulias, who Obama praised at a Thursday night fundraiser in Chicago as someone who “doesn’t shift with the wind,” hedged in his support for the president’s two biggest legislative accomplishments, the health care bill and the stimulus.
The health care bill, often referred to as Obamacare, was “far from a perfect vehicle,” Giannoulias said. He contrasted himself with Kirk this way: “He wants to repeal it. I want to reform it.”
It was a stark contrast to how Giannoulias spoke of the health care bill after it passed in the spring. In April he called the health bill “a big deal” and said it was “incredibly necessary.”
Giannoulias offered few specifics Sunday on what he would do differently, however. He said one “missed opportunity” was that the health care bill did not allow the Secretary of Health and Human Services to negotiate prices for drugs with drug companies.
As for the stimulus, Giannoulias also said the legislation was imperfect, but that it prevented the economy from a Depression like the one the country suffered in the 1930s.
“Do we need to see soup lines down the street to figure out what would have happened?” Giannoulias said. He said he would be in favor of more stimulus if it meant tax cuts for small businesses.
The tepid support by Giannoulias for Obama’s signature policies – from a senator running for office in Obama’s home state – is a sign of how far the president’s fortunes have fallen with the voting public.
On the economy, both candidates strove to cast themselves as pro-business and fiscally responsible.
“I’m the only candidate in this race who’s worked in the private sector,” said Giannoulias, the state treasurer who from 2002 to 2006 was a senior loan officer at his father’s bank.
Kirk, who has been an Illinois congressman for a decade and was previously a naval intelligence officer, said he was “very much a fiscal hawk” and hit Democratic leaders in Congress for being “viciously anti-business.”
“We have congressional leaders that are not interested in spending restraint at all,” Kirk said.
Kirk said he supported extending the Bush tax cuts across the board and would pay for them “by spending reductions across the board, by cutting whole programs.” One program he proposed getting rid of through selling it was the Tennessee Valley Authority, the publicly owned utility set up by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt during the Depression.
As for his family bank’s $20 million in loans to mob figures and convicted criminals, Giannoulias admitted he knew of Broadway Bank’s loans to them.
“I didn’t know the extent of their activity,” Giannoulias said. “If I knew then what I know now, these aren’t the kind of people we do business with.”
Kirk was pressed on misleading statements he has made in the past regarding his military service, and took a more repentant tone.
“I was careless. I learned a very painful and humbling lesson,” Kirk said. “I am completely accountable for this … The level of scrutiny here is completely appropriate.”