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Rothfus, Lamb Square Off On Climate Change, Immigration, Guns In Second TV Debate

Don Wright/AP, Conor Lamb for Congress
Republican Congressman Keith Rothfus (left) and Democratic Congressman Conor Lamb are competing in Pennsylvania's 17th Congressional District.

The differences between U.S. Reps. Keith Rothfus (R – Sewickley) and Conor Lamb (D – Mt. Lebanon) came into starker relief during a debate Tuesday, when the candidates addressed issues ranging from climate change to immigration and guns.

The representatives met Tuesday evening for the debate, which aired live from the studios of WTAE-TV.

One of the greatest contrasts between the candidates came on the issue of climate change. A recent United Nations report predicts dire consequences if countries don’t take drastic action to reduce greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

Lamb said he’s “very concerned” about the issue. “We are long past the point where we can tolerate having people in positions of leadership who deny that climate change is taking place,” he said.

Rothfus, meanwhile, criticized Obama-era regulations and the Paris climate accord, saying they would achieve minor gains for the environment while threatening thousands of jobs in Pennsylvania’s energy sector.

Lamb shared Rothfus’ concern about jobs and noted that natural gas provides “good-paying jobs for many people here in western Pennsylvania.”

“We have to keep jobs first,” he said. “We have to keep people first and their ability to earn a livelihood.”

Lamb pointed out that natural gas releases less carbon dioxide than coal and, thus, has helped to reduce carbon emissions in recent years. But, he later said the government should support the development of markets in renewable energy through policies like financing the purchase of solar panels.

Rothfus said economic growth is the “No. 1” way to address concerns about climate change, suggesting that such growth would spur technological innovations to mitigate harm to the environment.

On the issue of immigration, Rothfus defended his support for the Securing America’s Future Act, a measure proposed by Virginia Republican Bob Goodlatte and backed by NumbersUSA, a group that favors adopting higher barriers to immigration.

He argued the bill, which had no Democratic support and split Republicans, was not a “hardline” bill. In addition to strengthening border security, he said the measure would also grant legal status to immigrants who entered the country illegally as minors and are currently protected under the Obama Administration's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.

Lamb countered that the bill offered a “long” and “unrealistic” path to citizenship for beneficiaries of the DACA program.

Lamb was put on the defensive himself when he was asked about a vote he cast this summer in support of a resolution commending immigration officers. Those officers have come under fire for heavy-handed tactics, and some Democrats have called for the abolition of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.

Immigration agents, Lamb said, should not be blamed for the failure of Congress to create a reasonable path to citizenship.

Lamb and Rothfus also clashed on guns, with Lamb reiterating his support for universal background checks for firearms purchases, including those that take place over the internet and at gun shows.

Rothfus said he opposes expanded background checks. He warned they would “burden law-abiding, responsible citizens [who] shouldn’t be burdened,” without preventing “a single mass shooting.”

Neither candidate said they’d support banning assault weapons or placing limits on large-capacity magazines, reflecting widespread support for gun rights in their district.

Pennsylvania’s 17th Congressional District covers Beaver County and part of suburban Allegheny County. It’s the only place in the nation where two sitting Congressman will face one other in the November election.

A new congressional map, ordered by the state Supreme Court this past winter, put both men in the same district.

Rothfus has served three terms in the House, where’s he’s opposed increased government spending. He’s a vocal supporter of the GOP tax cuts that became law last year, and has called for the repeal of the Affordable Care Act.

Lamb, by contrast, is a major proponent of the health care law and has faulted the 2017 Republican tax plan for favoring the wealthy and big corporations over the middle class.

A socially moderate Democrat, Lamb gained national attention this past winter when he squeaked out a win in a closely-watched special election to replace former Republican U.S. Rep. Tim Murphy. It was an unlikely victory in a district that had been trending Republican for years and broke for President Donald Trump by about 20 points in 2016.

The new district lines appear to favor Lamb, even though Trump won it by a slim margin in 2016. The district picked up the South Hills, which voted overwhelmingly for Lamb in the special election, while losing outlying areas like Cambria County where Republicans are more popular.

A poll last week showed Lamb leading Rothfus 54 to 42 percent among likely voters in the district. The Democrat has also outraised his opponent by a 2-to-1 margin between July and September.

Campaign finance reports released Monday show Lamb brought in nearly $1.2 million during that period. Rothfus, meanwhile, raised just over $581,000. He boosted his total to just over $756,000 by drawing from other fundraising committees.

Outside Republican groups have pulled back spending in the district, but on Saturday Trump reiterated his support for Rothfus. On Twitter, the president said the congressman “is in the fight of his life.”

An-Li Herring is a reporter for 90.5 WESA, with a focus on economic policy, local government, and the courts. She previously interned for NPR Legal Affairs Correspondent Nina Totenberg in Washington, DC, and the investigations team at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. A Pittsburgh native, An-Li completed her undergraduate studies at the University of Michigan and earned her law degree from Stanford University. She can be reached at
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