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Election 2010: a fight over jobs and recovery vs. deficit and debt

Trillion-dollar annual US deficits are unprecedented, and many voters are alarmed by them. But the public also wants a jobs recovery. How those dual issues will affect Election 2010 races.

By Staff writer / August 9, 2010

A man dressed as a panhandling Uncle Sam stood in New York’s Times Square last fall, one of a dozen who did so to protest the scope of US national debt.

Brendan McDermid/Reuters/File

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Washington

What's a member of Congress seeking reelection to do? Above all, Americans want more jobs, but lawmakers' usual fixes – more government spending or tax cuts – are causing many voters deep distress over supersized federal deficits and ballooning public debt.

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No previous Congress has faced this political riptide to the same extent. Trillion-dollar annual deficits are unprecedented in American politics, and, even in a tough economy, deficits now matter.

"Suddenly, worries about the deficit are overtaking the economy to the extent that it's a choice between putting people back to work or cutting the deficit. You cannot do both," says Stan Collender, a congressional budget analyst and partner with Qorvis Communications.

The deficit concern is such that it is changing the game for some incumbents in Congress. It no longer suffices to "bring home the bacon" to the district: In fact, a record of spending may hurt a lawmaker.

Of the six incumbents to lose their primaries so far in the 2010 cycle, four – Sen. Robert Bennett (R) of Utah, Sen. Arlen Specter (D) of Pennsylvania, Rep. Alan Mollohan (D) of West Virginia, and Rep. Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick (D) of Michigan – had seats on powerful appropriations committees and were big players in targeting "earmarks" to their constituents.

"These losses put lie to the common Washington notion that earmarks equal votes, because if anyone should be electorally bulletproof under that formula it would be appropriators," says Steve Ellis of Taxpayers for Common Sense, which tracks congressional earmarks.

The parties stake out their turf

Both parties expect their midterm election gains to hang on the credibility of their plans to create and sustain jobs. But, increasingly, they also perceive a need for a credible plan to rein in deficits.

For Democrats, that has meant committing to a pro-jobs, stimulus agenda, even while backing pay-as-you-go rules that require offsets for new spending. House Democrats owe their majority to fiscal conservatives elected from former Republican districts. As the election approaches, these conservative Democrats are balking at proposals that are not fully paid for.

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