J. Scott Applewhite / AP
Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2017 | 2 a.m.
WASHINGTON — For decades, congressional Republicans have pushed to slash the budget and reduce the size of the federal government, especially during the eight years Democratic President Barack Obama was in office.
Now that Republican President-elect Donald Trump is poised to take charge, deficits and debt just don't seem to matter to the GOP.
The first significant piece of legislation under unified Republican rule is a budget measure that, as a prerequisite for a speedy repeal of the Affordable Care Act, endorses deficits adding almost $10 trillion to the debt over the coming decade.
Soon to follow is the health repeal measure itself, which could erase more than $1 trillion in "Obamacare" taxes that the party has previously held onto in earlier budget plans to keep its promise to balance the budget.
Republicans will also turn to a huge, $1 trillion-plus spending bill to wrap up unfinished Cabinet agency budgets. It's likely to carry Trump priorities — billions of dollars for a wall along the U.S.-Mexican border and even more for the Pentagon.
Trump and incoming top White House officials such as his chief of staff, Reince Priebus, are making it clear that the new administration doesn't support tackling the financial problems of the huge benefit programs that are the biggest drivers of future debt, Social Security and Medicare. A more pressing priority is a huge infrastructure spending plan.
"The presidential campaign, the entire Congress, there really hasn't been discussion of debt, deficits and government spending," said Rep. Mark Sanford, R-S.C. "And yes, that's a problem."
"It's sort of disappeared from the radar screen," said former Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., who had been budget panel chairman.
Some of the party's deficit hawks are not happy. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., is promising to vote against the current GOP budget plan, which is a bare-bones measure that calls for keeping the government on autopilot for the next decade.
"What will the first order of business be for the new Republican majority? To pass a budget that never balances, to pass a budget that will add $9.7 trillion in new debt over 10 years?" Paul asked. "Is that really what the Republican Party represents?"
GOP leaders maintain that the budget plan is simply a "shell" that's being used to set in motion an "Obamacare" repeal without the threat of a filibuster by Democrats.
Obama budget director Shaun Donovan, who last year was denied the traditional hearing before Congress to defend the administration's budget, is using the current Obamacare debate to poke at Republicans. He highlighted in a recent letter to lawmakers that the GOP budget plan "includes virtually no deficit reduction" and would increase the debt by almost $10 trillion.
Some of Trump's appointees, including his designated budget director, Rep. Mick Mulvaney, R-S.C., and his choice to lead the Department of Health and Human Services, Rep. Tom Price, R-Ga., come from the ranks of deficit hard-liners in the House.
"Why some folks here in Washington would be willing to let these programs go bankrupt is beyond me," Price said during a budget debate in 2015. "Medicare and Social Security are going broke."
Price and Mulvaney could offer a counterbalance to more cautious voices like Priebus, who on Sunday said Trump doesn't want to "meddle with Medicare or Social Security."
Top Republicans like House Speaker Paul Ryan are no longer in the habit of issuing bold promises about balancing the budget or curbing the rapid growth of Medicare. Ryan's major fiscal project for later this year isn't cutting spending; it's reforming the loophole-cluttered tax code.
"One of the things that we're focusing on is getting people back to work, is economic growth," Ryan told reporters Tuesday. "You can't ever balance the budget if you don't get this economy growing."
But in his first year as Budget Committee chairman, in 2011, Ryan sounded a different tune in questioning Obama's priorities.
"The country's biggest challenge, domestically speaking, no doubt about it, is a debt crisis," Ryan said then. "Presidents are elected to lead, not to punt. And this president has been punting."
Last year, when Obama submitted his final budget, Price and Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo, issued a statement saying, "Rather than spend time on a proposal that, if anything like this administration's previous budgets, will double down on the same failed policies that have led to the worst economic recovery in modern times, Congress should continue our work on building a budget that balances and that will foster a healthy economy."
Some longtime foes of spending and deficits have moved on to other tasks than cutting the budget.
"We'll wait and see what the budget is but my first priority is defending the nation and the cuts that we enacted have put the security of the nation in danger," said Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz.
Asked Tuesday if Republicans would cut spending later in the year, No. 2 Senate Republican John Cornyn of Texas said, "Tax reform is the one that I hear mentioned most often, but that hasn't been finally decided."