WASHINGTON -- Every member of the all-Republican Arkansas congressional delegation except U.S. Rep. Bruce Westerman of Hot Springs voted early Friday to approve a bipartisan budget agreement that adds an estimated $320 billion in spending over the next two years while also cutting a number of taxes.
Lawmakers noted that much of the money would go to support the nation's military, which has been at war for 17 years.
U.S. Sens. John Boozman of Rogers and Tom Cotton of Dardanelle cast their yes votes shortly after midnight Thursday.
U.S. Reps. Steve Womack of Rogers, French Hill of Little Rock and Rick Crawford of Jonesboro followed suit in the pre-dawn hours.
Westerman, the delegation's lone vote of no, said it's irresponsible to saddle future generations with so much debt.
"Three hundred billion dollars over two years. ... I just couldn't stomach that," he said. "One of the main things I ran on was to get rid of the deficit and work on the debt, and we're going in the wrong direction on that."
The national debt surpassed $20 trillion last year. The budget deficit for fiscal 2017 totaled $666 billion.
Passage of a 10-year, $1.5 trillion tax cut package in December is expected to widen the gap between government revenue and expenditures, the Congressional Budget Office said.
The deficit in fiscal 2019 is expected to pass $1 trillion, Westerman noted. The federal fiscal year starts Oct. 1.
While disaster aid is a priority and increased military spending is "absolutely necessary," Congress needed to make cuts in other programs to offset those spending increases, Westerman said.
The burden arising from the existing national debt is already substantial, he said.
"We're spending close to $300 billion a year in interest on the debt, and that's with low interest rates," he said. Debt service payments are expected to rise sharply in the next decade, he said, adding, "It's unsustainable in the long run."
The other House members from Arkansas were unavailable for interviews, their spokesmen said. Instead, they issued written statements explaining their votes.
"This bill isn't perfect, but it does do a lot of good for the country, including boosting the investment in our national defense and improving resources for the brave men and women in uniform who serve on our behalf," said Womack, who is chairman of the House Budget Committee.
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The legislation, which was quickly signed into law by President Donald Trump, "acknowledges that the current budget and appropriations process is not working. And so I'm encouraged this agreement initiates real talks that could reform the process and make it work better," Womack said.
Crawford said the legislation will help the U.S. as it deals with China, Russia, a nuclear North Korea and a global war on terrorism.
"We must be willing to invest in and upgrade our military. Our national security depends on it," he said.
Defense spending isn't what's causing the nation's fiscal problems, he said. "The principal driver of our debt is mandatory entitlement spending, and that reckoning is coming," he added.
Hill's statement stressed the package's increased military spending, saying it would "ensure that our men and women in uniform have the resources and tools they need to protect our homeland and carry out their missions abroad."
Congress needs to change the way it funds the government, he said.
"We need to end the cycle of running our nation on short-term spending bills. I believe that extending our debt limit without any substantial reforms will only provide greater uncertainty in our financial markets, and, in turn, negatively affect Arkansan and American families," he said.
Hill said it may take a constitutional amendment "to compel the government to better prioritize the spending of hard-earned tax dollars, and I've gotten a pledge from House leadership that we will vote on a balanced budget amendment before the next spending deadline."
Crawford, who also favors the amendment, said House leadership has agreed to put it up for a vote before March 23.
Such an amendment "will aid in our efforts to address entitlement reform," he said.
In order to be adopted, a constitutional amendment originating on Capitol Hill would need to receive support from two-thirds of the House and two-thirds of the Senate, plus three-fourths of the states. Past efforts have fallen short.
Friday's vote drew criticism from the Club for Growth.
Jackson T. "Steve" Stephens Jr. of Little Rock is board chairman of the organization, which describes itself as "the leading free-enterprise advocacy group in the nation."
Rachael Slobodien, the group's communications director, called the budget agreement "the embodiment of fiscal irresponsibility."
"Because of it, our nation will now experience trillion dollar deficits indefinitely. This deal is of, by, and for the swamp," she said in an email. "What this exercise revealed is the great need to have more principled fiscal conservatives in Congress. And Club for Growth PAC exists to achieve exactly that."
Michael John Gray, chairman of the Democratic Party of Arkansas, said Friday's brief government shutdown showed "the dysfunction of Washington."
The legislation that ultimately passed contained some important elements, he said, including funding to address opioid abuse, increase disaster relief and strengthen the military.
But the Republicans' free-spending ways are a far cry from their rhetoric, he said.
Members of the majority party are "mortgaging the future for political gain while coming back home and telling everybody that the biggest threat to our country is our debt," he said.
As candidates, Arkansas' elected representatives all promised to rein in government spending.
They also repeatedly criticized Democratic President Barack Obama for producing a series of unbalanced budgets.
In a 2015 news release, for example, Hill warned that Obama's fiscal 2016 budget would "saddle future generations with an exploding national debt."
On his website, Crawford condemned Obama's fiscal 2013 budget, warning, "We cannot play politics with the federal debt that we are passing onto our children. ... Any budget that does not include a plan to lower the debt is a denial of reality and a rejection of my constituents' concerns."
After Obama's 2016 State of the Union address, Womack said in a written statement that the president "has done nothing to solve for deficits and debt that plague America."
In a February 2014 radio address, then-U.S. Rep. Cotton condemned Obama for adding trillions of dollars to the national debt, saying it "places an immoral burden on our kids and grandkids."
In a 2012 Senate floor speech, Boozman said deficit spending posed a threat to the nation's fiscal health.
"We've got to stop spending more than we take in. If not, we risk going the direction of Greece, Portugal, Italy and other European countries that have spent their way to the brink of default," he said.
This week, Arkansas lawmakers said they remain concerned about deficit spending but argued that the budget boost was necessary.
In an interview late Thursday, Cotton portrayed the legislation as a trade-off: Republicans bolstered national security; Democrats increased spending on a variety of other programs.
"Four-and-a-half months into our fiscal year, [Democrats] continue to filibuster any defense spending bill until they get the amount of money they want spent on domestic matters. Congress ought not operate like that," he said.
Boozman said it may take a constitutional amendment to rein in spending.
"I think the way that we get out of this is through a balanced budget amendment. I'm a co-sponsor of that and will continue to work with all of my heart to get that done," he said.
A Section on 02/10/2018