WASHINGTON — — Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett, who is fighting for political survival in the competitive 6th Congressional District, said during a televised debate Tuesday that he is conflicted about an upcoming ballot question that would let some illegal immigrants pay in-state tuition rates at Maryland schools.
In the liveliest and highest-profile debate of the closely watched race, the Republican incumbent said the state's Dream Act pits concerns over "respect for our laws" against the economic benefits of educating immigrants and others. He would not say how he will vote.
"I am conflicted," Bartlett acknowledged during the debate, which was broadcast live by WUSA-TV to a large part of the 6th District, including Montgomery, Frederick, Washington and Allegany counties. "I see these two sides, and they are in contention."
It was the first time the candidates have been pressed in a debate about the controversial issues facing Maryland voters Nov. 6. Bartlett's Democratic challenger, John Delaney, has long supported creating a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, which he casts as an economic issue.
Delaney, a Potomac financier, said he supports the state's Dream Act.
"I think it's one of the most important things we need to do for the [moral issue of] the 11 million undocumented residents in this country," Delaney said of his broader immigration platform. "We also need to do it for our competitiveness."
The law, passed by the General Assembly last year, would allow some illegal immigrants to pay lower, in-state rates at Maryland colleges and universities. To qualify, students would have to show that their parents had paid taxes for three years and that they had graduated from a Maryland high school.
Opponents put the law on the ballot. A Baltimore Sun poll last month found that likely Maryland voters are almost evenly split on the issue. Other polls have suggested a stronger majority in favor of the law.
Democrats in Washington view the 6th District as one of the best opportunities in the nation to pick off an incumbent Republican after lawmakers in Annapolis redrew its boundaries to include 300,000 more Democratic voters. Delaney has raised more campaign cash than Bartlett and has pumped $1.9 million of his own money into the race.
The 30-minute debate, which included commercial breaks, zipped by. Bartlett and Delaney covered immigration and same-sex marriage in under three minutes. Delaney said he supports legalizing gay marriage, an issue that is also on the state's ballot next month. Bartlett, a Buckeystown scientist and 10-term incumbent, was circumspect.
He said he supports same-sex partners' having access to each other's health insurance and retirement benefits. But, he said, "marriage has been a term for centuries now that has been applied to a union between a man and a woman — I think it needs to stay there." Bartlett has repeatedly voted in favor of a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage.
As they have in previous debates, the two sparred over the role the federal government should play in improving the economy. Delaney said Washington can help spur private economic growth by lowering budget deficits and investing in education and infrastructure. "We need the right amount of regulations to protect the consumers of this country but we also need a balanced approach to dealing with our deficit," he said.
Bartlett argued that Congress must lower corporate tax rates and reduce federal regulation. "We don't need regulations to protect citizens, we don't need regulations to keep businesses and people who are providing goods from screwing the public," he said.
The exchanges underscored a fundamental question of the race: how some of Bartlett's more conservative views — which he has crafted over 20 years representing a one-time Republican stronghold — will play in a district that is now far more competitive. In the past few weeks, Delaney has sought to define Bartlett as a tea party conservative.
"When we look at these issues, we have to think about the facts; we shouldn't think immediately about ideology," Delaney said. "We shouldn't be signing pledges saying we'll never take any action, even if it's in the best interest of the country."
Bartlett, meanwhile, is working to burnish his centrist credentials. During the debate, he noted his friendship with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat, whom Republicans across the country targeted in attack ads against Democratic candidates in the 2010 election.
"There's nobody who reaches across the aisle more than I do," Bartlett said.