Rep. Charlie Melancon, the Democrat challenging Sen. David Vitter in Louisiana, went after his Republican opponent this week for supporting Medicare's prescription drug benefit — an initiative that piled hundreds of billions of dollars onto the nation's debt.
"David Vitter voted for the prescription drug program, which cost the government and the taxpayers of this country more than the stimulus, the TARP and the bailout for the automakers," Melancon said during a debate between the two candidates Thursday night.
Deficit spending has become a central issue on the campaign trail, where Republicans have blasted the majority Democrats for sending deficits well above $1 trillion in the past few years. Yet Melancon's comments are an inconvenient reminder that the Republicans' record on deficit spending is hardly clean.
Indeed, the Part D program — created in 2003 by a GOP-led Congress and signed into law by President George W. Bush — was estimated to cost between $395 billion and $534 billion over 10 years. None of the new spending was offset by program cuts or revenue hikes elsewhere in the budget.
Republicans criticizing the new health reform law as recklessly expensive have had a tough time explaining their support for the prescription drug entitlement.
Earlier this year, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) blamed the then-minority Democrats for forcing GOP leaders to use deficit spending to pay the tab.
"We would have paid for it but we didn’t have the votes to force paying for it," Hatch told CNBC in February. "So don’t blame Republicans for that."
Hatch said the deficit spending was worth the trouble because Part D has helped millions of seniors “get their drug costs down.”
Many fiscal hawks, though, don't buy that argument. David Walker, the former U.S. Comptroller General, has said the prescription drug benefit "was probably the most fiscally irresponsible piece of legislation since the 1960s."
More recently, Bruce Bartlett – former advisor to Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) — said Part D was "a pure giveaway" to drug companies devised by fiscally irresponsible lawmakers.
"It astonishes me that a party enacting anything like the drug benefit would have the chutzpah to view itself as fiscally responsible in any sense of the term," Bartlett wrote in Forbes last December.
"As far as I am concerned, any Republican who voted for the Medicare drug benefit has no right to criticize anything the Democrats have done in terms of adding to the national debt."
Last month, House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) conceded that Republicans have "made our fair share of mistakes" when it came to controlling deficit spending. But the caucus, he argued, has learned the lessons of the past.
"We've demonstrated over the last 20 months," Boehner said, "that Republicans have heard the American people."
Vitter, for his part, did not respond to Melancon's criticisms of the Part D program.