BILLINGS — Democrat John Lewis and Republican Ryan Zinke offered contrasting views on the role of the federal government and the need for ground troops to battle Islamic militants during a Monday night U.S. House debate.
The two candidates faced off at Montana State University Billings in their second debate in the run-up to November’s election.
Zinke returned repeatedly during the hourlong event to his theme that less federal government is key to a thriving private sector.
He said he supported the budget plan from House Budget Committee Chairman Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin as a framework for sweeping changes that would reduce the size of government.
“It’s a stifling government that’s preventing America from doing what we do best,” he said.
Lewis, a longtime aide to former U.S. Sen. Max Baucus, said reforms are needed for a dysfunctional Congress. But he said the federal government has a role in workforce development, helping the uninsured and promoting renewable energy.
Lewis said he agreed with Zinke about the need to address the deficit, yet he fumbled and could not come up with an answer when asked what specifically he would be willing to cut from the federal budget.
Regarding Islamic militants in Iraq and Syria, the Democrat urged caution before any decision to use U.S. ground troops. He said a more thoughtful approach is needed to prevent the U.S. from making the same mistakes that resulted in thousands of troops lost and $2 trillion spent in Iraq.
“I don’t want to be represented by somebody (whose) instant reaction every time there’s a situation is to send in ground troops. We need more responsible voices than that,” Lewis said.
Zinke, who is a former Navy SEAL and state senator, said he would rather fight the militants in Iraq than in America.
The candidates seemed to find common ground on several other issues, including the need for the government to help communities develop infrastructure in eastern Montana’s booming Bakken oil region.
They both voiced support for gun rights, with Lewis saying in response to a question about the Newtown, Connecticut, school massacre by saying more emphasis should be put on mental health care, particularly in rural areas.
Zinke said existing gun laws were “worth fighting for.”
The debate featured some personal attacks from both sides. Zinke said his opponent needed to take responsibility for any role he had in developing the Affordable Care Act while working for Baucus.
Lewis made several mentions of Zinke’s out-of-state campaign donors and characterized the Republican as beholden to those outside supporters. Until Friday, Zinke had said he was not going to participate in the Billings debate, citing a scheduled trip to Texas to talk with foreign policy experts and attend a Tuesday fundraiser.
Additional debates in the House race are scheduled for Oct. 4 in Bozeman, Oct. 19 in Kalispell and Oct. 21 in Great Falls.
A Montana Democrat has not been elected to the U.S. House since 1994, when Rep. Pat Williams was re-elected to a ninth term.