By Douglas Moser
---- — LOWELL — U.S. Sen Scott Brown and challenger Elizabeth Warren found themselves jousting again over questions of her claims of Native American ancestry, his past and future votes, and tax policy in their second debate last night.
They drew the clearest distinctions between themselves in the hourlong debate at the Tsongas Arena in the areas of taxation, spurring the economy and the DREAM Act, a proposal that would create a path for children of illegal immigrants to become permanent residents through military service or obtaining an advanced degree.
"The DREAM Act, I don’t support it,” Brown said. “It’s a form of back door amnesty. We need to improve our legal immigration system.”
Brown said the entire American immigration system needed to be overhauled. And he accused Warren of being in favor of allowing undocumented immigrants to go to public colleges while paying the in-state tuition rate and to get driver’s licenses. He did not specifically say whether he opposed those things, and Warren did not rebut those points.
"This is a big difference between us. I would strongly support the DREAM Act,” Warren said. “I also believe we need comprehensive immigration reform. We need to follow the law, and we need to enforce our borders.”
The candidates, pushed by moderator David Gregory of “Meet the Press,” laid out their positions on closing the federal budget deficit and accused each other of supporting policies that would hurt middle-class families.
Warren advocated the so-called Buffett Rule, a proposal named after billionaire investor Warren Buffett that would impose a 30-percent tax on income over $1 million, and said taxes on the wealthiest taxpayers should rise to narrow the deficit.
"What Senator Brown doesn’t want to talk about is that he signed the extremist right-wing pledge never to raise taxes on millionaires and billionaires,” she said, referring to conservative activist Grover Norquist’s Taxpayer Protection Pledge that asked politicians to promise to refuse to support any revenue increase of any kind.
"Senator Brown voted to say he would let taxes rise for 98 percent of families in Massachusetts and 97 percent of small businesses, would hold them hostage unless there were tax cuts for the top 2 percent,” she said, pointing to a procedural vote Brown took blocking a proposal that would have extended the Bush-era tax cuts for most taxpayers while letting the rate revert to the 1990s-level of 38.5 percent for the top bracket.
Brown said that spending in Washington is out of control and that higher revenue would not solve that problem and would damage the fragile economic recovery. “I don’t want to raise taxes on any American in middle of a three and a half year recession,” he said.
For encouraging stronger economic growth, Warren said she would have supported President Barack Obama’s proposal last year, called the Jobs Act, to add jobs by funding more infrastructure projects and sending money to state governments to prevent the layoffs of public employees.
"Senator Brown voted in lockstep with every other Republican and we didn’t get a jobs bill,” she said. “It would have prevented the layoffs of teachers and firefighters across the commonwealth.”
However, Brown said reigning in federal taxes and regulations would spur growth, and those goals could only be accomplished by working with both parties. “We have runaway deficits each and every year,” he said. “We don’t need rock throwers or people who will leave blood and teeth in the streets. We need people to work together to find common sense solutions.”
"We need to get our fiscal and financial house in order,” he said.
Brown played up his independence, saying he voted with his party 54 percent of the time. However, he resisted answering Gregory’s questions about whether he would be a supporter of Mitt Romney if he wins the presidency, and whether he would vote for Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, as majority leader should the Republicans capture control of the U.S. Senate.
"I’ve been speaking to independent voters in Massachusetts to be their independent voice,” he said. “Professor Warren would be in lockstep with her party. I don’t work for President Obama or Mitt Romney or Mitch McConnell. That’s what independence is about.”
Warren said she worked with members of both parties while working as chairwoman of a Congressional oversight panel in 2009 that monitored the Troubled Asset Relief Program, which bought mortgage assets from struggling banks during the financial crisis.
"I’ve had experience working across aisle,” she said. “I went to Washington in the financial crisis in 2008 as part of a bipartisan commission, with both Republicans and Democrats, and worked on the different and challenging issues facing the country.”
She said she is not working for any party, but would work with any senator or leader who she thought proposed ideas that protected and helped the middle class.
Gregory asked if Warren had any regrets about the questions surrounding her claims of Native American heritage. Brown repeated his assertion that identifying herself as Native American in a professional directory, and possibly in job interviews, is a test of character she did not pass.
"I wish I had been faster in answering the question,” Warren said. “But the truth is the truth. I believe my mother. I can’t understand what [the] test would be to say my mother lied to me from day I was born until the day she died.”
Colin Reed, a spokesman for Brown, said after the debate that Warren’s tax proposals have been blasted by national business groups such as the National Federation of Independent Businesses and the Chamber of Commerce.
"There is a difference on jobs, on the economy. She supports more spending and higher taxes,” he said.
After the debate Congressman Barney Frank, D-Newton, who is retiring this year, disputed Brown’s characterization of himself as independent and moderate.
"He’s a conservative Republican in effect (because of how he votes),” he said. “What he really believes is inconsistent with the majority of Massachusetts voters.”
The candidates’ tactics remain as they have been since their first debate last month. Brown, prompted by the moderator then, went on the attack about Warren’s ancestry claims and last night, again prompted by the moderator, again persistently questioned her intentions. Warren tried to paint Brown as a right-wing ideologue. And both candidates said they were the choice for helping the middle class.
Frank Talty, a political science professor at UMass Lowell and director of its Center for Public Opinion, said Brown’s more bare-knuckled tactics reflected a sense in the senator’s campaign that he could raise enough questions about Warren and make her seem unpalatable without doing too much damage to his nice-guy, everyman reputation. But that tack could only work for so long.
"These ads go after the Native American issue, but then it comes back to hurt you,” he said.
Warren, on the other hand, highlighted her connection to and work with President Obama, whom Talty said would likely win Massachusetts handily and is the most popular politician in the state.
"If you’re Professor Warren, you need to leverage him in your campaign,” Talty said. “She does it by talking about how she’s supportive of his agenda, and Obama’s lead over Romney is enormous.”
Independents will likely be key, he said, particularly since a recent UMass Lowell poll found that Brown has a number of people who lean toward voting for him, but are open to changing their minds. Warren’s supporters are much more firm.
"Another interesting stat is that 22 percent of people who said they would vote for Senator Brown said they would vote for President Obama,” Talty said. “There are Obama supporters who said they may vote for Brown. If you’re Professor Warren, you need to try to peel off those Obama voters from Brown by talking about those positions he’s taken that diverge with those of President Obama and the Democrats in Congress. If you’re Senator Brown, you reiterate the number of times you have voted independently in the best interest of voters rather than for either party.”
Most political commentators and politicians after the debate predicted that the tight polls, many of which give Warren a slight lead but are by no means clear, are an indication that the race will remain extremely tight.
"I don’t think anything tonight would change that,” Congresswoman Niki Tsongas, D-Lowell, said after the debate.
Follow Douglas Moser on Twitter @EagleEyeMoser.