What Happened. On Wednesday during a “McCaskill on Main Street Tour” in Kansas City – her fifth town hall of six scheduled during the congressional spring break this week – Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO) veered sharply from the usual Democratic talking points when she said, “I do believe a $17 trillion debt is irresponsible. I do believe that.”
With Congress out this week, listening tours with constituents are a popular activity among elected reps, but comments back home can end up as sound bites for opponents. McCaskill responded to a range of questions from citizens and addressed such issues as marijuana legalization, unemployment insurance, and the federal debt. It was on the latter point that she was quite candid.
McCaskill, a former state auditor who supports capping federal spending to force budget discipline, said, “We have to be careful about making the federal government the answer to everything, because it’s going to put us in a position where we’re not a first-tier nation anymore if we get swallowed up by the debt.” She added, “Some people think, deficits don’t matter, and debt doesn’t matter – we have cut our deficit by a lot, and that’s great – but I don’t think it’s responsible to say, ‘Ok, let’s go back to the old way.’ You know what the old way was? We said yes to everybody... . We weren’t supposed to be buying municipal fire trucks at the federal government. We’re doing that now. That’s not the way our Constitution was designed.”
Why It Matters: The U.S. debt has risen dramatically since President Obama took office. In Jan. 2009 it was $10.6 trillion and it is $17.5 trillion now; the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) projects gross federal debt will rise to $25.74 trillion in 2023.
In his ambitious budget blueprint earlier this month, Obama asked for more than $56 billion in new spending to boost economic growth while saying he’d cut the national debt by raising taxes on the rich, cutting payments to health providers and reforming immigration – unlikely to happen. His budget claims to tame the national debt over 10 years to 69 percent of GDP, but the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) sees publicly held debt rising from its current 72 percent to 79 percent of GDP. McCaskill’s debt attack is indicative not just of ongoing budget struggles but of a broader Democratic distancing from the president in a heated midterm election year.
Related: Why Dems Are More Worried Than Ever About November
What It Means for the Election: McCaskill, a moderate, symbolizes the divide between a growing group of Democrats and President Obama at a time when the Senate is up for grabs. Republican control of both houses of Congress would give one party broad power over the legislative agenda in the coming years, an obvious problem to Democrats. At the core of the Democratic divide is Obamacare. Both the president and his signature health care law have been polling poorly, and under the new law some insurers are projecting premiums to skyrocket next year. “I don’t care to have him [Obama] campaign with me,” Sen. Mark Begich (D-AK) told Politico. “I’d rather him come up to see where his policies aren’t working.”
Though she is not up for reelection this year (she won in 2012), McCaskill told MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” last month that if she were a Dem running for reelection in Arkansas, Louisiana or North Carolina this fall, she would “probably not” want to appear with Obama on the campaign trail. “The president’s numbers are not strong in my state, or in Arkansas, or Louisiana, or North Carolina. He did not win those states [in] 2012.”
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