PIERRE, S.D. (AP) — Republican Rep. Kristi Noem defended her record as South Dakota's lone member of the U.S. House during a fast-paced and contentious debate Friday night, while Democratic challenger Matt Varilek accused her of being part of a dysfunctional Congress that has accomplished little because of politicians who refuse to compromise.
In their fourth and final debate before Tuesday's election, Noem and Varilek tangled on taxes, Medicare and other issues that have dominated the campaign. The two frequently interrupted each other, sometimes accusing each other of not telling the truth.
Noem said she has lived up to her pledge to fix problems in Congress. She said Congress previously worried only about how to spend more money, but it has cut federal spending by $2.2 trillion since she was first elected two years ago.
"We've changed that now to how much do we cut, how much do we need to tighten our belts to make sure we don't continue the deficit spending and accumulating debt our kids and our grandkids are going to have to pay off," Noem said in a one-hour debate televised statewide on KELO-TV.
But Varilek said Congress has not improved the way it operates in the past two years.
"This Congress has been one of the least productive in history," Varilek said. "There's too much of my-way-or-the-highway. I bring a different style. I believe we have to willing to work together, willing to seek common ground and work with others."
Varilek, a 37-year-old former member of Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson's staff, said an example of congressional stalemate was the House's failure to pass a new farm bill before recessing for the election. He said Noem was unable to persuade the House GOP leadership to hold a floor vote on the bill.
Noem, a 40-year-old farmer and former state lawmaker from Castlewood, said she worked hard to pass the farm bill, but that it was impossible to bring it up for a vote because Democrats opposed the bill's changes in food stamps.
Varilek asked Noem if she would agree that both campaigns stop running negative ads in the last few days of the campaign. Noem said she would consider it, but doesn't believe any of her ads are negative because they just contrast the records and positions of the two candidates.
Some of the sharpest exchanges during the debate were on Medicare, the health care program for retired people. Each candidate accused the other of supporting plans that could wreck it.
Noem said Varilek supports President Barack Obama's health care overhaul, which she said would take $716 billion from Medicare to pay for parts of the health care measure.
"Medicare does not deserve to have $716 billion robbed from it to pay for Obamacare," Noem said.
Varilek said Medicare benefits would not be cut, but $716 billion would be saved by making the program more efficient. He said Noem voted for two Republican budget measures that would take the same money from Medicare but use it to give tax breaks to the wealthy.
The Democrat said he wants to preserve traditional Medicare while saving money by making it more efficient. Noem said she supports a plan to keep traditional Medicare for those 55 and older while giving younger people a choice between the existing program or getting private insurance subsidized by the government.
Noem wants to repeal the president's overhaul and replace it with a new effort to reform health care, but Varilek said he wants to keep the law while making some changes. He said the law has helped by preventing insurance companies from denying coverage to people with existing medical problems and allowing young people up to age 26 to remain on their parent's health insurance policies.
While Noem opposes increasing tax rates, she said she supports increasing federal revenue by ending tax loopholes and exemptions. Varilek has said he would raise taxes on households making more $250,000 a year.
Noem again described Varilek as a staunch supporter of Obama.
"He wants to tax you more. He said he would regulate you more. He wants to spend more money," Noem said. She said that puts him out of touch with South Dakota's middle-class families.
Varilek repeated his earlier accusations that Noem supports millionaires and oil companies.
"I think Washington is rigged to serve the wealthiest individuals and the biggest corporations, first and foremost. I'm in the race to be a voice for middle-class families," Varilek said.
"I'm not running to serve the president or anyone other than the people of South Dakota," Varilek added.