GOP sounds alarm bell over coronavirus-fueled debt

Republicans are growing increasingly anxious about the meteoric rise in the country’s debt amid unprecedented levels of federal spending aimed at softening the economic impact of the coronavirus. 

Congress has passed several relief bills in the last seven weeks that total nearly $2.8 trillion — roughly the combined total of the fiscal 2019 and 2020 discretionary spending for the entire government.

The mammoth spending comes as the coronavirus’s effect on the country has been severe: 22 million unemployment claims in the past month, a rocky market that has plummeted from record highs and nearly a million confirmed cases and more than 46,000 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University.

Democrats, and some Republicans, are already turning their attention to a phase four coronavirus bill, which some experts have warned could need to match, or surpass, last month’s $2.2 trillion as the federal government struggles to keep pace with the country’s growing health and economic needs.

But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is raising a red flag, arguing that lawmakers should be “cautious” about greenlighting additional spending. 

“Let’s weigh this very carefully because the future of our country in terms of the amount of debt that we’re adding up is a matter of genuine concern,” McConnell told reporters this week after the Senate passed its latest $484 billion relief bill. 

McConnell said Wednesday that Congress would “pause” and “assess the future potential damage” sparked by the recent increase to the country’s debt. 

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), a member of GOP leadership, said that while Congress needed to spend money to help provide a financial bridge through the pandemic, lawmakers would soon have to grapple with the impact of the spending. 

“This is really a wartime footing,” Cornyn told Fox News, when asked how to pay for it. But, he added, “Congress is going to have to do some really heavy lifting to try to stabilize our fiscal picture.” 

Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) has outlined a “Let’s Get Back to Work” plan that includes, among other things, addressing yearly deficits.

“Even prior to Coronavirus, our nation was running trillion-dollar yearly deficits. In order for America to be prepared for the next challenge, and ensure a prosperous economy for generations to come, Congress and the Administration must work together to bring spending under control,” Scott wrote. 

The concerns about the country’s fiscal trajectory come as Republicans have largely embraced big spending as they’ve tried to stave off a deep economic recession sparked by the social distancing restrictions put in place to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. 

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said the U.S. government would “spend what it takes,” while noting that the administration was keeping an eye on the debt. 

“On the other hand, I think we are sensitive to the economic impacts of putting on debt, and that’s something that the president is reviewing with us very carefully,” he said. 

Republicans, including McConnell, have previously defended the rapid-fire spending, arguing that the one-in-a-lifetime pandemic necessitates a robust response from the federal government. Forty-three percent of respondents to a Pew Research Center survey said they have had their wages cut or lost their jobs due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“We occasionally have these great crises, and when they occur, we’re able to rise above our normal partisanship — and many times our normal positions — because these are not ordinary times,” McConnell told reporters last month.

The willingness to embrace big spending comes after Republicans largely opposed then-President Obama’s request a decade ago for a similar, though substantially smaller, stimulus plan. 

Democrats have also accused McConnell and the GOP of hypocrisy given their support for significant corporate and personal tax cuts in 2017. 

“Funny, I don’t remember Majority Leader Mitch McConnell being concerned about deficits when he shoveled billions in tax breaks to his donors,” tweeted Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.).

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) also pointed to the tax cuts when asked about the GOP concerns. 

“Let’s roll back that $2 trillion tax cut. … If you’re worried about the deficit and if you’re worried about our national debt, let’s raise some taxes,” she said. 

Not every GOP lawmaker has been on board with the high spending. 

Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) accused his colleagues last month of “shoveling money out of a helicopter” without making sure it’s being effectively spent. 

“Right now, the plan around here is basically just to start shoveling money out of a helicopter, and the most important debate is whether Democrats or Republicans get to shovel the money first,” said Sasse, who voted against an approximately $104 billion coronavirus relief bill but voted for the $2.2 trillion package. 

And Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who was in quarantine during the vote on the $2.2 trillion package, returned to Washington this week to warn colleagues against spending hundreds of billions. 

“No amount of money, not all the money in China will save us from ourselves. Our only hope of rescuing this great country is to reopen the economy,” said Paul, who voted against the latest package. 

“My advice to the Senate and to the American people is let’s be aware of what we’re doing by creating all this new debt, and let’s think before we jump to a terrible, terrible conclusion,” he added. 

The federal deficit for fiscal 2020 rose to $743.6 billion in March, 7.6 percent higher than at the same point last year, according to Treasury Department data. That does not include the $2.2 trillion stimulus bill passed by Congress. 

Meanwhile the country’s debt is on track to exceed the size of the entire U.S. economy this year for the first time since World War II, according to an analysis by the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. 

Rep. Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.) warned in a recent letter to leadership that providing more funding for state and local governments would set a bad precedent and have a negative impact on the nation’s debt. The National Governors Association has asked congressional leadership for an additional $500 billion. 

“Our structural deficit this year will exceed $4 trillion. By the end of the fiscal year our debt will exceed the size of our economy. We are on an unsustainable path. We cannot afford to backfill the poor decisions of state and local officials. It is time to reopen America and it must begin with state and local leaders,” he wrote.

Asked about the debt during a Fox News interview on Wednesday, Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), the No. 3 House Republican, said that Congress needs to be looking at how issues like “our national security, like our national debt” are being affected by the coronavirus. 

“I think there is a real concern about it,” she said. 

Tags Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Ben Sasse Budget Coronavirus Debt deficits John Cornyn Liz Cheney Martin Heinrich Mitch McConnell Pew Rand Paul Steven Mnuchin

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