Pennsylvania Senate Candidates Spar Over Health Care, Leave Specter on Sidelines

A liberal Democrat and a conservative Republican, united by their mutual desire to oust a U.S. senator, proved that despite diametrically opposed views, not all health care town halls are raucous. 

Second-term Rep. Joe Sestak, a Democrat who represents suburban Philadelphia, is an ardent backer of the embattled government run health insurance option being debated in Washington. He shared his town hall stage Wednesday night in Allentown, Pa.,  with a conservative Republican, former Rep. Pat Toomey, who's vehemently against it. 

Though the candidates firmly laid out their health care positions at the session, there were no angry outbursts or expressions of ill will during the 90-minute debate -- and neither Senate candidate so much as mentioned their mutual political rival, incumbent Republican-turned-Democratic Sen. Arlen Specter. The meeting effectively put Specter on the sidelines. 

"You know, we shouldn't rush into remaking one sixth of our economy. Let's take our time, let's do this right," Toomey told a packed and civil theater at Muhlenberg College. 

Sestak proposed the joint town hall style debate. Sestak, who's daughter is a cancer survivor, said overhauling the system is what led him to run for Congress in the first place. But when he said he had read the House bill and the plan would pay for itself, laughter erupted through the audience. "The CBO said the bill that's in the House is 'budget neutral'. It doesn't add a cent to the debt," Sestak claimed. 

In fact back in July, the CBO or Congressional Budget Office said legislation moving through the House of Representatives "would result in a net increase in the federal deficit of $239 billion over the 2010-19 period." 

Following their post-debate jabs at the absent Specter, Toomey and Sestak went out for a beer together. They hung out for about 30 minutes and toasted their civil debate, and their shared hope to end the 79 year old Specter's senate career next year.

Specter bolted the GOP and switched to the Democratic Party to avoid a Republican primary against Toomey -- who came within two-hundredths of a percent of defeating Specter in Pennsylvania's 2004 Republican Senate primary. Specter switched parties in April when his own polls showed Toomey 40 points ahead. 

At his press conference this spring, the five-term senator flatly stated, "I'm not prepared to have my 29-year record in the U.S. Senate decided by the Pennsylvanian Republican primary electorate."

After the town hall, Sestak said Specter was welcome at the debate but would not have added anything. 

"We already won Arlen over to my position. He's following my leadership. He's converted -- not only his party but his position on public health care plan option," Sestak said. 

Asked if the debate would have been better with Specter participation, Toomey let loose. 

"You have to qualify that. Which Arlen do you mean? The Arlen (who) was against the public health plan or the Arlen that's now for it? The Arlen who was in favor of card check and then against it and for it again? No, I don't think so," the Republican said.