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Republicans are concerned about the debt again, even as they admit Trump grew it

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 4/8/2021 JM Rieger
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Over the past month, Senate Republicans have acknowledged something that would have been anathema a decade ago: Debt and deficits not only grew during the Trump administration, but grew in part because of Republican-backed policies over that time.

“To some degree that’s true. I mean the previous administration, debt and deficits weren’t a high priority for them,” Senate Minority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.) said on March 5 when asked about the growth of debt under President Donald Trump.

“Republicans and Democrats alike have been responsible for increasing the spending, but it’s always Democrats wanting to spend more than the Republicans,” Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) said on March 10.

“I don’t think anybody has a very good record for the last decade on this,” Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) said on Sunday when asked about the growing national debt.

The Republican mea culpas on the national debt follow years of demands for spending cuts to reduce the debt, including threats that nearly resulted in the U.S. government defaulting on its debt in 2011. Now, many of those same Republicans have returned to their Obama-era posture of opposing most new spending that would either add to the national debt or that would be financed with tax increases. You can watch examples of how Republican rhetoric on deficit spending has evolved in recent years in the video above.

Debt as a percentage of GDP is now at the highest level since World War II, largely due to coronavirus-related deficit spending. But the debt-to-GDP ratio was rising even before then after the 2017 Trump tax cut added $1.5 trillion to the debt and spending increases significantly expanded the budget deficit.

Now as President Biden pushes a $2 trillion infrastructure and climate plan, most Republicans are balking at the size and scope of the package.

“We think having a debt the size of our economy for the first time since World War II already doesn’t argue for adding $2 trillion more when the country is clearly on the way back,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said last month.

But during the Trump presidency, Republicans could be quick to qualify the debt expansion under a president who promised to eliminate the national debt in eight years.

“Do I wish that it was a higher priority for the president to rein in spending and the debt? Yes,” Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) said in an interview with Axios shortly before the 2020 presidential election. “He didn’t run, principally, on reining in spending and the deficit and debt. That’s not what he promised to do.”

Asked moments later if the national debt would again become a priority for Republicans after the 2020 election, Cruz replied, “Oh sure. Sure.”

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