By John Celock
A debate before Kansas business leaders Wednesday turned into a debate over who could run the U.S. Senate as the combatants in one of the country’s most watched Senate races kept up the focus on party control.
U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) repeatedly hammered his opponent, independent Greg Orman, over Orman’s Democratic Party ties while Orman tried to distance himself from the Democrats and insist that he was the only one who could change Washington. Orman, a businessman from suburban Johnson County, has emerged with a narrow lead over the three term Roberts after Democrat Chad Taylor dropped out of the race last month. Orman has declined to say which party he would caucus with if elected.
Orman did not tell the business community assembled for the debate sponsored by the Johnson County Public Policy Council which party he would caucus with but also said he would not support either Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (R-Nev.) or Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) for majority leader. In the tight battle for control of the Senate, Orman’s vote could make the difference. He did not indicate who he would vote for if he did not vote for either Reid or McConnell, which Roberts jumped on.
“Who will he vote for to lead the Senate? Will he put up a sign saying present?” Roberts said. “ Who will he caucus with? What committees will he serve on?”
Roberts then asked if Orman was considering Reid for majority leader or if he would consider Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), the number three ranking Democrat who has been mentioned as a future Democratic Senate leader. Orman declined to answer if he had a preference for Schumer.
Roberts hammered Orman over his past donations to Democratic candidates including Reid and President Barack Obama, along with his brief 2008 Senate campaign as a Democrat. Orman said that Roberts was forgetting that he has also donated to former Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.), noting that he is bipartisan. Orman then took aim at Roberts’ line that the problem in Washington is Democratic leadership of the Senate, saying that Republicans have been problematic in Congress as well.
“Senator Roberts keeps talking about the Senate being the problem. I agree with the Senate being run poorly,” Orman said. “Harry Reid runs it like a dictatorship but the House is run in the same way.”
Orman touted his support for tax reform and immigration reform. He said that he does not support amnesty for illegal immigrants but indicated that he would support a program to allow illegal immigrants to register with federal immigration officials, pay a fine and then be allowed to work in the country. Orman said that Roberts’ immigration policies would not help the Kansas economy.
“Senator the parts of the state you profess to care about would be absolutely decimated with that,” Orman said of Roberts’ immigration policies. “The meat packing industry, the farming industry, the service industry wouldn’t exist.”
Roberts fought back saying that Orman had told a forum in Hutchinson that he would support amnesty. He also promoted an immigration bill passed by House Republicans that he said is being blocked by Reid.
In the area of energy, Roberts touted his support for the Keystone Pipeline and said he wanted to end the “war” on oil, gas and coal, noting the state’s economic base in those industries. Orman said that he is supportive of gas exploration and touted the need for more investment in wind energy in the wind rich state.
Roberts also noted that the Keystone Pipeline would not only help domestic energy production but also have a larger role in foreign policy.
“If we opened up that pipeline we’d start exporting natural gas to Europe and we can make Europe less dependent on Vladimir Putin,” he said.
Both candidates came out for regulatory reform but stressed it in different ways. Orman touted his small business plan, which includes planks for a review of every federal regulation every 10 years, while Roberts blamed the Obama Administration for playing politics with regulations. The incumbent singled out the Environmental Protection Agency, the Internal Revenue Service, the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of the Interior for criticism on regulatory policy. All are popular targets for conservatives.
Orman said that small business owners need better regulatory assistance, noting that businesses pay $11,000 a year to comply with regulations. He noted that he wants to allow for a streamlining in regulatory oversight for business instead of having each agency visit separately.
Roberts stressed that he would push a Republican agenda in the Senate, including opposing Obama and looking to repeal Obamacare. He told the crowd that the “eyes of the nation” are on Kansas. Orman stressed the need to address change.
“Change can be scary,” Orman said. “But what frightens me is more of the same.”