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Rehberg Tester

Denny Rehberg, left, and Jon Tester

HELENA — In Montana’s U.S. Senate race, Republican challenger Denny Rehberg and his GOP allies are blasting Democratic Sen. Jon Tester for running up the nation’s debt, by voting for billions of dollars in new spending.

Yet Rehberg, a congressman since 2001, has voted for his share of items that have added trillions of dollars to the federal debt over the last decade.

Rehberg voted for the Bush tax cuts, the Iraq war and the Medicare prescription drug program, which together have cost the U.S. treasury some $3 trillion over the past dozen years.

Tester, interviewed about the debt debate last week, said it’s “irresponsible to cut taxes and go into a war at the same time.”

“I think a war needs to be paid for. I think if you look at the ballooning of the debt, that’s where the balloon started in a big, big way,” he said.

Tester, however, has voted for some big-ticket items as well — and his party was in control of the government during 2009 and 2010, which saw the federal debt grow by $3.5 trillion in those years alone.

Rehberg said last week that while the country fell into a deep recession in those years, the government should have been tightening its belt, rather than going on a “spending spree.”

“That’s the fundamental difference between Jon Tester and myself,” he said. “I believe that small businesses, if left alone with less taxes and less regulation, are going to turn this economy around, rather than government spending.

“There are those who think government spending should increase during times of recession. I’m not one of them.”

Tester voted for the 2009 stimulus spending bill and another $800 billion tax-and-spending package in late 2010 designed to help the economy. He said the economy was losing so many jobs that “something had to be done” in 2009.

“I don’t think (the stimulus) failed at all,” he said. “The bill offered up $500 million in tax reductions for Montana taxpayers alone, and invested in infrastructure that put people to work.”

So, both men have their rationales for how they voted to run up the nation’s debt. Here’s a closer look at some of the details — and their explanations for their votes:

Rehberg became a congressman in January 2001, the same time George W. Bush took office as president. It may be hard to imagine now, but, at the time, the Congressional Budget Office forecasted a $5.6 trillion budget surplus for the next decade.

Bush pushed for and won huge income tax cuts, at a forecast cost of $1.4 trillion over 10 years. Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., helped lead the effort, and Rehberg voted for them.

Then came the Sept, 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, and an already weak economy fell into recession. Federal deficits quickly returned.

But Bush and his fellow Republicans didn’t ease up on tax cuts — and, they went to war with Iraq. Shortly after the war began, Congress passed an acceleration of the Bush tax cuts, in February 2003. It passed 51-50 in the Senate, with Vice President Dick Cheney breaking a tie, and Rehberg voted for the new round of cuts, which immediately cut the top rate from 39.6 percent to 35 percent, cut other top rates, and slashed tax rates on income from capital gains and dividends.

Rehberg said he felt the tax cuts were justified to help the economy — and notes that while the federal debt was growing, annual deficits started to decline after peaking in 2004.

“A country that’s growing, that’s expanding, is going to carry debt,” he said. “You just can’t let it get out in front of you. We were bringing our deficits down. …”

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But then the next economic bubble burst, with the housing bust and Wall Street crash in 2008. Barack Obama won the presidency, and was faced with the nation’s biggest economic crisis since the Depression.

Obama proposed the so-called “stimulus” bill, a mélange of tax breaks (mostly for the middle class), spending for social programs, and money for building and research projects. Tester supported the $800 billion plan, which was supposed to stop the economic bleeding and put the country on the road to recovery.

More than three years later, unemployment is still 8 percent, after peaking at 10 percent in late 2009.

Obama, with Democrats’ support, also passed the Affordable Care Act, his overhaul of health coverage. While Republicans attacked it as another budget boondoggle, the CBO says it’s basically revenue-neutral.

Rehberg noted that it creates two new entitlements — insurance subsidies, and expanded Medicaid for the poor — and pays for it by reducing Medicare spending and imposing new taxes.

Tester defended the measure, saying many of the Medicare reductions are wasteful payments to private insurers handling Medicare.

Finally, in late 2010, Obama and congressional Republicans cut a deal to extend the expiring Bush tax cuts for another two years, as well as cut payroll taxes for workers and extend unemployment benefits. The entire package cost $800 billion.

Tester, who wanted to end the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy, voted for the deal, saying he felt it was a bipartisan solution to help a stalled economy: “We’ll never get the debt under control unless we get the economy moving again.”

Rehberg voted no, saying he wanted to extend the tax cuts for the wealthy and everyone else, for good, to give businesses and others “certainty” about tax rates.

“All you did was relieve the pressure on controlling spending,” he said. “I wanted to make a statement that the best way was to give taxpayer certainty to our small businesses.”

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