Gephardt criticizes Hastert for declining national debate
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt criticized Speaker Dennis Hastert on Wednesday for declining to participate in an upcoming, nationally televised debate between Republican and Democratic congressional leaders.
"Given Gov. Bush's refusal to participate in the three debates proposed by the Commission on Presidential Debates, your refusal raises questions about whether the leaders of the Republican party really want any honest discussion of the issues this year," Gephardt, D-Missouri, said in a letter to Hastert, R-Illinois.
But John Feehery, the Speaker's press secretary, said Hastert declined to participate in an October 15 debate hosted by Public Broadcasting Service because there are "435 different debates out there." Hastert's time is better spent "on the campaign trail and getting work done," Feehery said.
A PBS producer said the network is still searching for Republican surrogates for Hastert and Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Mississippi, who also declined to participate. Gephardt and Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, R-South Dakota, will represent the Democratic leadership.
GOP Conference Chairman J.C. Watts, R-Oklahoma, told reporters Wednesday that he would be happy to debate.
"We've got a great story to tell," said Watts, the fourth highest-ranking Republican in the House leadership.
However, Gephardt spokesman Laura Nicholas said Wednesday that the Missouri Democrat isn't interested in debating anyone below the level of House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas, and is still hoping that Hastert will change his mind.
"We're trying to smoke him out," Nichols said.
Feehery in turn called the Gephardt letter nothing more than a "desperation ploy" raised by Democrats fearful they won't win control of the House this November. He said a national debate is not needed for 435 local races.
"Things must be looking dim for the Democrats," he added.