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Questionnaires show differences among Utah's U.S. Senate candidates

SALT LAKE CITY — Republican candidates for the U.S. Senate sharply disagree on earmarks, term limits, banning the importation of foreign radioactive waste to Utah and even whether to buy state convention delegates dinners to woo them.

That's according to their answers to a questionnaire sent jointly by the Deseret News, KSL, the Utah Foundation and the Hinckley Institute of Politics. Full answers are now available by clicking here.

Only four of the eight current GOP candidates answered the questionnaire before the deadline: Sen. Bob Bennett, Tim Bridgewater, Merrill Cook and Mike Lee.

As would be expected for a group of Republicans, they agree on most issues: including opposing "Obamacare," fighting deficit spending, calling for tougher action against illegal immigration, opposing stimulus spending and making it easier to drill for oil and gas on public lands.

But they divide sharply on a few issues, most notably on whether using "earmarks" — where a senator designates spending for home-state projects — is good. All of Bennett's challengers have attacked his earmarking, and they did it again in the questionnaires.

Lee said it "creates the appearance of and the potential for political corruption." Bridgewater said current earmarking "is not fair, nor is it transparent." Cook supports earmarks only if they are voted on by the entire Senate and are transparent.

Bennett, however, vigorously defends them. "If Congress no longer earmarked money, the power would simply transfer over to President Obama, and I am not willing to let that happen. … If I refused to earmark money, it would simply mean that the money would end up being spent in Chicago or New York instead of Utah."

As an example, Bennett said, "The president's decision to cancel the Constellation and Ares space programs (to return to the moon) will cost Utah over 2,000 jobs. … The only way to reinstate funding for Constellation and Ares is by earmarking money through the appropriations process."

The candidates also disagree over a House-passed bill — which is stalled in the Senate — that would ban importing foreign low-level radioactive waste to Utah. The bill is designed to block such importation, which is proposed by EnergySolutions.

Bennett, who has received large donations from EnergySolutions, opposes the bill and has helped block it in the Senate. Lee, who as an attorney has represented EnergySolutions on the issue, said he would support the bill if it were changed to allow phasing in of the ban over several years.

Cook said he would vote for the ban. Bridgewater said he favors allowing states to decide whether they will accept such waste.

The candidates also disagreed on term limits. Bennett — who once vowed to serve only two terms but is now seeking his fourth — said he would "only support term limits if they are implemented across the board and in both major parties, but I am firmly opposed to unilateral disarmament."

Lee said term limits "provide the only effective means of eliminating the seniority system in Congress," but said he would put no limits on his own service "until such limits have been put in place across the board."

Bridgewater said he supports term limits because "the longer a senator is in office, the more his re-election depends on special interests' money rather than on the voters." He vowed to serve no more than three six-year terms if elected.

Cook said that he not only favors term limits, he helped place a term-limit initiative on the Utah ballot in 1994 and would vow to serve no more than 12 years.

Of interest, only Bennett acknowledged in the questionnaire wooing state GOP delegates by giving them free dinners. "I am meeting with delegates face-to-face over breakfast, lunch, dinner or meetings." The others said they are not buying delegates dinners.

On some other issues, Bridgewater, Cook and Lee all said they favor repealing the federal income tax and replacing it with a national sales tax — while Bennett said he would need to review that and other alternatives more.

Bridgewater, Cook and Lee also favor ending the practice that allows children of illegal immigrants who are born in America to become automatic U.S. citizens. All of the candidates generally favor tough action against illegal immigration.

The May 8 Utah Republican Convention will narrow the current field of eight GOP candidates. If any of them achieve 60 percent of delegate votes in several rounds of voting, they become the GOP nominee. Otherwise, the top two face off in a primary.