The candidate was outraged — just outraged — at the country’s sorry fiscal state.

“We have managed to acquire $13 trillion of debt on our balance sheet,” he fumed to a roomful of voters. “In my view, we have nothing to show for it.”

And that was a Democrat, Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado, who voted “yes” on the stimulus, the health care overhaul, increased education funding and other costly bills Congress approved under his party’s control.

Faced with a potential wipeout in November’s midterm elections, candidates such as Bennet are embracing budget cuts with the enthusiasm of Reagan Republicans.

Paul Hodes, the Democratic Senate candidate in New Hampshire, recently proposed $3 billion in spending cuts that would slice airport, railroad and housing funds. Elected to the House four years ago as an antiwar progressive, Hodes lamented that “for too long, both parties have willfully spent with no regard for our nation’s debt.”

The new push for austerity could prove too little, too late for Democrats, who fear losing their majorities in both chambers of Congress. In dozens of House and Senate races, incumbent Democrats are struggling in polls, leading political analysts to raise the serious prospect of Republican takeovers in the House and even the Senate.


The most ominous recent sign for Democrats was a Gallup poll released last week showing a wide gap in voter enthusiasm, favoring Republicans. Those Democrats who prevail in November will likely return to the Capitol in a more fiscally conservative mood.

Even as Democrats vow to bring spending under control, GOP candidates are trying to outdo them, embracing far more radical deficit-cutting solutions, including shuttering entire federal agencies. House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, pledged recently to repeal unspent stimulus funding and take a “long and hard look at the undergrowth of deductions, credits and special carve-outs” in the tax code, such as the mortgage-interest deduction that benefits millions of middle-class homeowners.

Some Democrats are looking to the debate over taxes to show voters they are serious about their conversion to fiscal restraint. President George W. Bush’s tax cuts, enacted in 2001 and 2003, are scheduled to expire this year. President Barack Obama has called for extending the cuts for all but the wealthiest taxpayers.

Republicans support a permanent extension of the tax cuts. The National Republican Senatorial Committee begins its daily digest of campaign news with a countdown to Dec. 31, the day “the Democrats slam voters with the largest tax hike in American history.”

But extending all the cuts would increase the deficit by $3.9 trillion over the next 10 years, the Congressional Budget Office says.

“We need to expose their hypocrisy on tax relief vs. deficit reduction,” said Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, head of the House Democrats’ campaign committee and a member of the party’s House leadership.

Some fiscal hawks are skeptical that either party is willing to make the unpopular decisions necessary to restore the country to fiscal health. “On the Republican side, the concern over deficits doesn’t seem to dampen the appetite for tax cuts, even though tax cuts can contribute to the deficit,” said Robert Bixby, executive director of the Concord Coalition, a bipartisan advocacy group dedicated to deficit reduction.

On the Democratic side, Bixby said, “The spending cuts proposed usually are fairly small. When you look at the budget dynamics, that really isn’t where the problem is. And I really don’t hear Democrats talking about the entitlement programs,” meaning Social Security and Medicare.


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