The Corner

Romney, Santorum, and the Debt Limit

Spooked by Rick Santorum’s triplet victories on Tuesday, Mitt Romney has taken to criticizing the former senator’s legislative record.

“He voted to raise the debt ceiling, I believe, five different times to a tune of about an additional $3.5 trillion,” Romney said yesterday in Atlanta.

The ex-governor seems to be referring to five votes Santorum cast in favor of legislation that increased the debt limit. (You can see the votes yourself here.) The difference between the debt limit before the first vote ($5.5 trillion) and after the last one ($8.965 trillion) is $3.465 trillion.

The allegation is double-dipping a bit: Yes, you can fault Santorum for voting in favor of big-spending programs such as No Child Left Behind and Medicare Part D. But it’s hard to blame him for voting for legislation that honored the obligations the government had already incurred.

Santorum’s history on the debt ceiling is complicated. In April 1993, when Santorum was a congressman, the House voted to approve a temporary increase in the limit from $4.145 trillion to $4.370 trillion. Although most Republicans voted against the measure, Santorum didn’t cast a vote. The next month, Santorum joined with his caucus in voting against the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1993, which raised the ceiling to $4.9 trillion.

In October 1995, Santorum suggested to Morning Call that Republicans could use the debt limit to win concessions from President Bill Clinton. In early 1996, however, the Senate passed both a temporary exemption of Social Security payments from the limit and an increase in the ceiling to $5.5 trillion by unanimous consent. (In between these votes, the Senate passed an additional temporary exemption of Social Security payments from the limit by voice vote.)

In April 1999, Santorum voted in favor of a bill that would have lowered the debt limit and required 60 votes in the Senate to raise it again. (A Democratic filibuster killed it.) Four years later, when asked about a looming vote to raise the ceiling, Santorum stoically told reporters, “We’ll do what we have to do.”

For his part, Romney has warned against our ever-accumulating national debt for years. But when Santorum was voting to raise the ceiling, Romney seems to have been silent. When I searched LexisNexis for references to “Romney” and the “debt ceiling” before 2007, only a handful of results came up — none of them relevant. That’s not to say Romney, a private citizen and sitting governor during the period in question, should have said anything. But it may indicate the weakness of his criticism.

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