BRIDGEPORT-As you’d expect at an event held by the AARP, the hot ticket issues were Social Security and Medicare. But in a year where the struggling economy is everything, Wednesday’s 4th District Congressional debate was at heart all about the deficit.

“The unfortunate truth is that government can’t afford to give a COLA right now,” said Republican challenger Dan Debicella, a state senator, in response to the first question, referring to the cost-of-living adjustments that affects Social Security payments.

“Why is that true? In the 23 months that Jim Himes has been in office, we have $3 trillion more in debt. There’s been a spending spree going on in Washington on pork barrel projects.”

“Sen. Debicella just said we can’t afford an increase in COLA and talked a lot about the debt that his party began running up in 2001,” responded Himes. “And yet he just told you that he supports a permanent extension of tax cuts. The price tag on that is $700 billion.”

Himes noted that the COLA is tied to inflation, not to the nation’s fiscal situation. “So when you hear that this country can’t afford to make it easier for our seniors to go to the grocery store or pay their heating bill, you’re not being told the whole story,” he said.

Though many of the talking points have become familiar during the campaign, both candidates threw some serious punches.

“”Jim, you’ve been in power for two years now, you and Nancy Pelosi,” said Debicella. It’s time to take responsibility for the governing that you have done in the last 23 months.”

Debicella, as Himes mentioned toward the end of the debate, referred to Nancy Pelosi six times in the 90-minute event. He also referred to Himes’ eloquence – in a style over substance kind of jab – at least three times.

“But do you know who one of the big fans of the stimulus bill actually is?” asked Himes at one point. “Dan Debicella.”

Debicella issued press releases each time his county received federal stimulus funding, said Himes. “You can’t call it a pork barrel stimulus and issue six press releases taking credit for the projects that benefited your community,” he said, directly facing his opponent.

The candidates also argued over Medicare, a huge issue for the senior demographic. Himes noted there are 100,000 Medicare recipients in the 4th district.

“It’s not a fun thing to talk about, because health care is deeply personal to people. And when you start talking about fiscal responsibility and Medicare and healthcare all in one conversation, it scares people.” He suggested making Medicare more efficient by reducing the annual 15% growth in medical care costs.

“Medicare is subject to financial fraud, to inefficiencies, and to people gaming the system,” he said. “The health are reform passed a year ago put in place much stricter monitors for these things.”

Debicella responded by blasting the incumbent Democrat.

“This is a situation, folks, where you always have to contrast what politicians say, verses what they do. Jim’s very articulate, and he just laid out all the problems that Medicare faces,” he said.  “What he didn’t tell you is he just last year voted for a $500 cut in Medicare. That’s how they paid for the health care reform.”

Debicella said he favors repealing the reform law and starting from scratch, keeping the good provisions in the reform bill but remove what he called expensive administrative boondoggles.

Himes said the cuts Debicella talked about actually would come from Medicare Advantage, the private insurance companies offering Medicare alternatives because the Bush administration saw Medicare as inefficient. “But it’s actually a lot more efficient administratively than private insurance companies,” he said.

Himes admitted that healthcare reform is complicated. “I’ve tried for months to understand it,” he said. “So let’s turn to a third party that looks after the interests of seniors.” The candidate quoted from an AARP press release asking for support of the healthcare reform: “We urge Congress to seize this opportunity to improve healthcare so older Americans and their families will get the care we need,” it said.

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