SALT LAKE CITY — Democratic Senate candidate Scott Howell took his best and what will be any challenger's last shot at Orrin Hatch during the Republican senator's debate swan song Friday.
Win or lose, the six-term Hatch has said 2012 will be his last election. Though he mostly spoke softly, the 78-year-old senator remained feisty while fending off Howell's jabs at his 36-year career.
"Our country is at a real crossroads. We have real problems, there's no question about it. We know that there's too much spending, too much regulation. We're $16 trillion in debt. The average debt per family is $140,000. We can no longer live with that," Howell said on KSL NewsRadio.
"These are Orrin's words from last week's debate, yet all this happened on his watch."
Hatch couldn't disagree with his own words and reiterated he believes the nation is at a crossroads. He said it will take a senator with his "experience, clout and raw determination" to turn the country around. That and Mitt Romney in the White House.
"I think it's going to take a very vibrant and solid president, but it's also going to take someone like me who is the Republican leader on the (Senate) Finance Committee, the most powerful committee in the Congress," he said.
Howell said polling expert Nate Silver of the New York Times says Republicans have only a slim chance of taking control of the Senate, meaning Hatch isn't likely to be the committee chairman.
"Rocky Anderson has a better chance of being elected president than Orrin has of becoming chairman of the finance committee," Howell said.
Hatch countered that Silver says the incumbent has a 100 percent chance of being re-elected.
Howell, a former Utah Senate minority leader, chided Hatch every time he blamed congressional inaction on Democrats, saying "There you go again" several times during the debate.
"I kind of resent when someone indicates I'm chewing up Democrats," Hatch said, his voice rising. "I know I have to work with Democrats."
If President Obama is re-elected, Hatch said he would do everything he can to help him when he's right and be the loyal opposition when he's wrong.
Howell said if he and Romney are elected, he would "reach out the hand of fellowship" and be the one to compromise and bring about bipartisanship.
Debate moderator Doug Wright asked the candidates what they would do to reduce the national debt without sacrificing jobs, harming the nation's infrastructure and hurting the education system.
Howell said he supports the bipartisan Simpson-Bowles budget reduction plan, which proposes to reduce the deficit $4 trillion over 10 years. He criticized Hatch for voting in favor of the nation's largest bailout and noted the debt rose from $80 billion to $16 trillion while he has been in office.
"We cannot continue in this pattern," said Howell, a retired IBM executive. "That is fiscal irresponsibility."
Hatch said that there's no question that Congress has almost spent the country into bankruptcy. But if it had approved his balanced budget amendment in 1997, which lost by one vote, "we wouldn't be in the colossal mess we're in today."
"Coulda, woulda, shoulda," Howell replied. "I admire Orrin for trying, but at IBM if you don't do something in a year, you're fired."
Hatch and Howell also were asked if there are any circumstances under which they would raise taxes to lower the national debt.
"Everything should be on the table," Hatch said. "But Republicans are very suspect of, I have to say, Democrats' voracious desire to raise taxes."
He praised the work on Simpson-Bowles but said it doesn't do anything to reform entitlements and "we know that's where we're going to have to go and find ways of saving Social Security and Medicaid and Medicare, both of which are going bankrupt."
"Well, there you go again, it's those Democrats," Howell said.
"No, I didn't say that," Hatch interrupted. "I said we need Democrats to work with Republicans. … Don't misrepresent."
Howell said Republicans didn't reduce spending when they controlled Congress in the Bush years and Hatch became part of that. Howell said there has to be consideration for a revenue increase and it has to be thoughtful.