Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas, this week rejected the argument that Republicans no longer care about the debt, and said the party will have time later to find some bipartisan solution to rising budget deficits and a total national debt that is quickly approaching $21 trillion.
Conservatives last week were furious at House and Senate leaders for supporting a budget deal that will see federal spending increase by nearly $300 billion over the next two years. The outlines of that budget deal passed the House and Senate, along with language to suspend the debt ceiling for a year and provide billions in new, unpaid-for disaster aid.
The move alienated conservatives in the House Freedom Caucus, who said the deal expands the swamp instead of shrinking it. But when asked, Cornyn said it's going too far to say the GOP has given up on deficits and debt.
"That's not true," he told the Washington Examiner when asked about criticisms that Republicans no longer see debt as an issue.
"They're right to be concerned," Cornyn said, referring to the spending agreement. "I'm hopeful we can come up with a bipartisan approach to dealing with the deficits and debt. It's irresponsible not to do so, but I don't think that was the time to do it."
Cornyn and many others argued it was time to break free of the spending caps that have put limits on military spending, and said the only way to get there was to agree to Democratic demands for more domestic spending.
But to deficit hawks, the deal was just the latest example of pushing aside the party's spending control goals now that a Republican is in office. Some fear the damage to the Republican Party could be significant as they head into a midterm election with hopes of holding on to the House and Senate.
"I'm concerned that our party was given a pretty big setback last week," said Rep. Warren Davidson, R-Ohio, a member of the House Freedom Caucus. "As a party, Republicans are more concerned about the debt and deficit than Democrats. ... There are members on both sides of the aisle that are somewhat concerned about it, and there are members on both sides of the aisle that are less concerned about it. I think last week showed that the people that aren't incredibly concerned about it prevailed over those of us who are very concerned about it."
Republicans are hoping that the tax cuts they delivered to most people will buoy them through November. But Democrats are pointing to the Joint Committee on Taxation's analysis, which says the tax cuts will add just under $1.5 trillion to the deficit over ten years.
That's likely to make it harder for Republicans to fight back against Democratic attacks that say the GOP only cares about spending and the debt when Democrats are in office.
"It makes it certainly more difficult," said Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., a fiscal hawk who voted against the package Friday and who isn't running for re-election. But he also said it's just as likely that most voters don't care much about the debt either.
"Unfortunately, the American people don't seem to care much about that right now. ... It just seems like that issue has dissipated," he said.
Last week, 16 Senate Republicans and 12 Democrats voted against the spending bill, which included an outline of the two-year budget agreement and contained language to turn off the debt ceiling until March 2019. For Republicans, it was a bridge too far, given how hard they fought against a national debt that rose to nearly $20 trillion under former President Barack Obama, on the backs of annual budget deficits that exceeded $1 trillion during Obama's first term.
One lasting problem heading toward the election could be the group of fiscal conservatives who seem hell-bent on reminding voters of the GOP concession on spending. Aside from the House Freedom Caucus, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., continues to make waves, and pointed out late last week that the GOP appears to have lost interest in the debt.
“If you were against President Obama’s deficits, and now you’re for the Republican deficits, isn’t that the very definition of hypocrisy?” said Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., on the Senate floor while holding up the vote Thursday evening.