Democratic leaders in Washington haven't changed politics despite promises to do so, and dealing with the national debt and looming Medicare and Social Security insolvencies will demand higher taxes on the wealthy and fewer corporate tax breaks, U.S. Senate candidate Joe Sestak said Monday.
In an expansive interview with The Associated Press, Sestak also blamed Republicans for failing to make politics more accountable and transparent, and he said he opposed changes to Social Security, including raising the retirement age or cutting benefits.
The Democratic Party promised change, but "I think my establishment, as well as the Republican establishment, has not changed politics in Washington, D.C.," Sestak said.
Voters, he said, "just want to know if you're trustworthy, and are you going to try to handle the tough problems?"
Sestak, a second-term congressman from the Philadelphia suburbs, faulted insurance industry dealmaking on the federal health care bill and several holdout senators, as well as the party's backing of the man he beat in the primary, Republican-turned-Democrat Arlen Specter.
At the same time, he also accused Republicans of voting against bills pushed by Democratic leadership simply for political gain. He cited one bill to extend billions in tax breaks and loans to small businesses that is stalled in the Senate.
"How could they not have passed that small business (bill)?" Sestak questioned.
Republicans have labeled the bill as a bailout of small banks.
Sestak, 58, a retired Navy admiral, is in a close and competitive race with Republican Pat Toomey, a former three-term congressman from the Lehigh Valley. Their voting records sit at opposite ends of the spectrum - Sestak's is liberal and Toomey's conservative.
Sestak has made helping small businesses and working families a central theme in his campaign. He has attacked policies that he says have favored big corporations, Wall Street and the wealthy at the expense of the country's financial well-being.
He touts a range of tax credit proposals for small businesses that he says can help spur hiring and help reverse a trend in which wealth is increasing disproportionately for the highest earners.
"We haven't focused on small businesses," Sestak said. "We pride ourselves on being on the side of the working family, but the tax cuts and the tax benefits went to corporations and Wall Street."
Sestak has provided a reliable vote for President Barack Obama, supporting the new federal health care law, an overhaul of banking and financial sector regulations and the nearly $800 billion stimulus, as well as the bailouts that began under President George W. Bush in 2008. All are opposed by Toomey.
Those votes were like his first job in the Navy as a damage control officer, Sestak said. He defended them as tough votes made necessary by a recession that he says hit the middle- and lower-class the hardest.
"They were ones where I didn't look at it from party, I looked at what needed to be done," he said. "And as we go forward, I don't think we can go back to the types of policies that benefit the well-to-do, in a belief that wealth will trickle down."
On those bills, Sestak has said he would have done some things differently. For instance, he criticized the health care law for maintaining the insurance industry's exemption from federal antitrust laws, leaving 95 percent of all health insurance markets in what he called noncompetitive monopolies.
To deal with the national debt and looming Medicare and Social Security insolvencies, Sestak said it is necessary to allow the expiration of lower marginal income tax rates for the wealthy and possibly raise the limit on the Social Security payroll tax.
"We're going to have to look there before we look anywhere else," Sestak said.
He also said he supports wiping out some corporate tax breaks, such as one that nets tens of billions of dollars a year for the oil industry, caps on discretionary spending, and restructuring Medicare and Medicare reimbursements to provide incentives for quality of care, instead of quantity.