WASHINGTON – Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on Tuesday called the ballooning budget deficit “very disturbing” but said large federal spending programs are to blame, dismissing criticism that last year’s Republican-backed tax cuts are saddling the country with more debt.

McConnell, in a Bloomberg interview, also said there is little chance Republicans will be able to cut government spending next year if they retain control of Congress because any changes would need leadership from Democrats.

Three weeks before midterm elections, McConnell, R-Ky., said tackling the mandatory spending programs like Medicare and Social Security as well as Medicaid could not be done by Republicans alone, suggesting it is unlikely to occur unless Democrats controlled at least one chamber of Congress.

“I think it’s pretty safe to say that entitlement changes, which is the real driver of the debt by any objective standard, may well be difficult if not impossible to achieve when you have unified government,” McConnell told Bloomberg.

McConnell’s comments came one day after the White House reported the government ran a deficit of $779 billion in the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, a 17 percent increase from the year before. Higher spending and stagnating tax revenue pushed the nation’s debt burden higher. Business tax revenue fell sharply in the first nine months of this year because tax rates were cut under the law.

It is very unusual for the deficit to grow during a strong economy, but the White House and Republican leaders have pursued policies that increase spending and cut tax rates, as Trump has said he is trying to rev the economy to encourage more growth.

Democrats warned during the tax cut debate that Republicans would widen the deficit through tax reductions and then seek to recoup the losses by cutting programs like Medicaid, a health care program for the poor and low-income families, and they seized on McConnell’s comments Tuesday.

“Like clockwork, Republicans in Congress are setting in motion their plan to destroy the Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security that seniors and families rely on, just months after they exploded the deficit by $2 trillion with their tax scam for the rich,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said in a statement.

Republicans spent most of the Obama administration complaining about budget deficits, but they have largely backed down during the Trump administration, supporting his proposals to raise spending and cut taxes as part of his agenda.

The U.S. government has more than $21 trillion in debt by some measures, and the aging population, combined with rising health care costs and large debt interest payments, are projected to make the debt grow even faster in the near future.

McConnell blamed the recent run up in the deficit on Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security, but there haven’t been policy changes in those programs to explain the major run-up in the debt in the past two years. The bigger changes have instead been bipartisan agreements to remove spending caps on things like the military, and last year’s tax cut.

White House National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow said in New York last month that the White House planned to try to address high levels of government spending next year, but he wouldn’t offer more details.

“I don’t want to be specific, I don’t want to get ahead of our own budgeting, but we’ll get there,” Kudlow said at the Economic Club of New York. “But I agree, we have to be tougher on spending.”

During the 2016 campaign, Trump vowed not to cut Medicare, Social Security, or Medicaid if he became president. He has largely stuck to his promise not to cut Medicare, but he has proposed Medicaid cuts and his advisers have also sought to make cuts in Social Security disability spending.

These proposals have largely fallen flat in Congress, however, as the White House didn’t signal they planned to make any changes a priority, and lawmakers are often reticent to take on divisive political issues without presidential leadership.

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