Pennsylvania's U.S. Senate candidates are fielding criticism for their stances on China's trade policies and the federal bank bailouts as they enter the final four weeks of the closely contested campaign.
Republican Pat Toomey appeared at a Pittsburgh-area home Wednesday to highlight his view of bailouts for banks, automakers and mortgage giants as a waste of taxpayer money and bad economic policy.
Democratic U.S. Rep. Joe Sestak voted for the bailouts, which he says rescued homes and jobs from the recession. The U.S. Treasury Department now says the $700 billion financial bailout will cost less than expected — about $50 billion — as loans are repaid and the government sells assets it took over.
In a speech Wednesday to the York Rotary Club, Sestak singled out the bank bailout as a tough vote in the face of a collapsing economy.
"I had 4,000 e-mails and letters, 92 percent of which said, 'Don't you dare vote for it,'" Sestak told the luncheon crowd.
But, he continued, "there were votes that had to be taken, and that's what leadership is about. It isn't about left or right."
Toomey and Sestak are vying for the seat held by five-term Sen. Arlen Specter, whom Sestak beat in May's Democratic primary.
Toomey, 48, a former investment banker and restaurant owner, represented the Allentown area in the U.S. House from 1999 to 2005 before heading the Washington, D.C.-based free-market advocacy group, Club for Growth.
Sestak, 58, is a second-term congressman from the Philadelphia suburbs who spent 31 years in the Navy and retired as an admiral. He is the highest-ranking former military officer ever elected to Congress, according to his campaign.
Also this week, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee aired a TV ad criticizing Toomey's decade-old vote in Congress that helped lead to imports of cheaper goods from China.
The ad surfaced as Congress is beginning to press China on currency manipulation and other trade practices that critics say are unfair to American workers. The campaign committee would not say how much it spent on the ad; the Toomey campaign said the organization is spending about $250,000 on ads in Pennsylvania this week.
The ad cites a March study by a labor-affiliated think tank, the Economic Policy Institute, that calculated that 2.4 million jobs, primarily in manufacturing, were lost or displaced, based on the value of the trade imbalance with China since 2001.
The conservative Heritage Foundation said the study ignored the value of cheaper goods to families and businesses and the jobs created by workers who handle imports and the money being reinvested in America by China.
The Toomey campaign accused Sestak of backing policies that would hurt small businesses, farmers, and manufacturers.
"If Congressman Sestak had his way, we would have mass protectionism and a global trade war, imposing huge new costs on all of the Pennsylvania businesses that rely on exports," Toomey spokeswoman Nachama Soloveichik said.
The bill was signed by then-President Bill Clinton — who employed Sestak on his national security staff and is now a friend and supporter — and supported by 83 senators, including some Democrats who are still serving. Specter, then a Republican, opposed it.
It was backed by a coalition of business and farm groups that sought to export more products to China, but opposed by labor unions that warned of job losses.
On Wednesday, Sestak said he would have voted against the bill.
"This is about creating a level playing field for American workers," Sestak said. "Congressman Toomey's vote rewarded China for skirting the rules and subsidizing Chinese corporations at the expense of Pennsylvania workers."
Last week, Sestak voted for a measure that would allow the U.S. to seek trade sanctions against China and other nations for manipulating their currency to gain trade advantages. It passed the House, 348-79, and was sent to the Senate.
The Toomey campaign could not immediately say whether Toomey supports the bill.