Democrats accuse Republicans of 'bad faith' as they invoke national debt to pause pandemic aid

Mitch McConnell and other GOP leaders are citing the growing debt to oppose relief for state and local governments hammered by the coronavirus.
Image: Mitch McConnell
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., during a Congressional Gold Medal ceremony to honor Steve Gleason at the Capitol in January 2020.Matt McClain / The Washington Post via Getty Image file

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By Sahil Kapur

WASHINGTON — Top Republicans are evoking concerns about the rising national debt to pump the brakes on coronavirus relief, and Democrats are crying foul.

House Democrats are eyeing a vote as early as Friday on a $3 trillion package that includes aid to state and local governments, assistance for essential workers, an extension of unemployment benefits beyond July and another round of direct payments for families.

"We're taking a look at what we've already done — we've added about $3 trillion to the national debt — and assessing the effectiveness of that before deciding to go forward," Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., told reporters Tuesday. "If we reach a decision along with the administration to move to another phase, that'll be the time to interact with the Democrats."

He said the House bill "is not something designed to deal with reality but designed to deal with aspirations — this is not a time for aspirational legislation."

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The budget deficit is projected to rise to a record $3.7 trillion in fiscal year 2020, according to the Congressional Budget Office, although the U.S. continues to borrow at record low interest rates.

Democrats say Republicans are using the issue now as a pretext to reject additional relief, arguing that they weren't concerned about the debt when they passed the $1.9 trillion tax law or other coronavirus aid measures that helped businesses.

"Well, it's interesting to see what they're saying, becoming now, renewing their fiscal hawk positions that they can barely remember. I have confidence in going big with what we do," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said Monday on MSNBC's "All In with Chris Hayes."

"When I saw them give a $2 trillion addition to the national debt in order to give 83 percent of the benefits to the top 1 percent, that was so irresponsible in terms of it did nothing for the economy except heap mountains of debt on our children," she said.

The budget deficit fell sharply during Barack Obama's presidency amid demands from congressional Republicans. But it rose by hundreds of billions of dollars after the GOP took control in 2017 and passed tax cuts and struck deals to increase spending.

The Democrats' new legislation, which is backed by Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., includes nearly $1 trillion in aid to state and local governments to cover expenses related to the coronavirus and to pay health care workers and teachers. McConnell and other Republicans have used the growing debt to pour cold water on the push.

On the Senate floor Wednesday, Rick Scott, R-Fla., sounded the alarm about the fiscal situation as he railed against "bailing out" states facing budget woes during the pandemic.

"Our national debt and deficits — already at unsustainable levels — have skyrocketed as Congress has spent almost $3 trillion to address this crisis," Scott said. "At some point, we need to start thinking about the impact this spending will have on our country's financial future and the future of our children and grandchildren."

The battle is less partisan among governors.

"As Congress reconvenes, delivering urgent state fiscal relief must be a top priority. Each day that Congress fails to act, states are being forced to make cuts that will devastate the essential services the American people rely on and destroy the economic recovery before it even gets off the ground," Republican Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan and Democratic New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said in a joint statement Wednesday. "This is not a red state or blue state crisis. This is a red white and blue pandemic. The coronavirus is apolitical."

Republicans are digging in their heels less than six months before an election that will shape the U.S. recovery from the coronavirus, foreshadowing political roadblocks that the apparent Democratic nominee, Joe Biden, would have to deal with if he is elected president. The outcome will affect whether the country pursues fiscal restraint or major stimulus efforts to recover from the coronavirus calamity.

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A task force announced Wednesday by Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., includes some figures who have downplayed the deficit in pursuit of national goals: Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., and Stephanie Kelton, an economics and public policy professor at Stony Brook University in New York. The task force features progressives and moderates who will recommend policy to the Biden campaign and the Democratic National Committee.

Ocasio-Cortez said Democrats should ignore GOP debt warnings.

"It's absolutely a bad-faith argument," she said in an interview. "They were not concerned about the deficit when they wanted half a trillion dollars that would be leveraged into $4 trillion for Wall Street and their donor buddies. And honestly, you know what? If they are that concerned about the deficit, I'm happy to meet them halfway and roll back the $2 trillion tax cut that they passed just two years ago.

"Aside from that, they don't get to just start whining about the deficit the moment we actually get on the cusp of helping working people," she said.