ATLANTA (AP) — Neither Rep. Jack Kingston nor businessman David Perdue has detailed a clear course for changing the nation's fiscal situation, instead broadly railing against government spending and debt in their campaign for Georgia's open U.S. Senate seat.
That makes it hard to know what kind of senator either man would be on the budget and economy, despite Kingston's 21-plus years in Congress and Perdue's lengthy private sector resume. Both say they will oppose taxes and cut spending. But they're short on specifics, especially when it comes to major items like the military, Social Security and Medicare that comprise the bulk of Washington's $3.7 trillion operating budget.
It's a familiar conundrum for many Republicans balancing the competing demands of conservative supporters calling for smaller government and the broader electorate that still favors many federal services. That juggling act also helps explain the ongoing series of stalemates in Washington, as Republicans block attempts to raise new revenues while both parties fail to agree on structural changes in spending.
For now, Kingston and Perdue are focusing mostly on those small-government conservatives who are likely to decide Tuesday's runoff. The winner advances to face Democrat Michelle Nunn in a November election that will help determine which party controls the Senate for the final years of President Barack Obama's administration. Republicans need six more seats to win a majority and can't afford to lose retiring GOP Sen. Saxby Chambliss's seat.
"We don't have a revenue problem, we have a spending problem," Kingston says, echoing a familiar GOP argument. The longtime House Appropriations Committee member, now a subcommittee chairman, touts his success trimming various government operations, such as the farm bill, school lunch programs and military procurement practices.
He also points to his role in banning earmarks — special projects put into spending bills — after tea party activists helped Republicans win control of the House in 2010. But in preceding years, Kingston sponsored earmarks himself and bragged in his re-election attempts about federal taxpayer support he'd secured for Georgia. Even now, Kingston promises to protect Georgia's agricultural industry and its military outposts.
The congressman has also voted for many deficit budgets during his 11 terms, and supported President George W. Bush's expansion of Medicare to provide a new drug benefit for seniors and the "Medicare Advantage" program that essentially allows some seniors to buy subsidized private coverage beyond their government insurance.
In the current term, as he's been running for Senate, Kingston has joined his fellow House Republicans in a hard-line fiscal stance. He's supported proposed budgets of Budget Chairman Paul Ryan that would theoretically balance the budget in 10 years with widespread cuts in government services from Medicaid to Pell Grants. But the House hasn't moved on measures that would actually put such cuts into place, and House Republicans had the political cover to support the outline knowing it wouldn't become law with Democrats controlling the Senate and White House.
Perdue has seized on Kingston's spending record, hammering him as a liberal supporter of earmarks and a longtime participant in a profligate Congress. But the former corporate CEO has his own inconsistencies.
Although he's never sought public office, Perdue's most significant public post was on the governing board of Georgia's port authority — a clear beneficiary of the kind of federal money that Kingston has helped steer to the state.
He broadly critiques Obama's economic and fiscal policies, including the Affordable Care Act. But, as Kingston notes, Perdue did as a businessman call for expanding insurance access with "a solution at the federal level." Kingston also notes Perdue's paid service on the corporate board of at least one firm, Alliant Energy Co., that got direct aid through Obama's 2009 economic stimulus law.
Perdue has signed a no-new-taxes pledge. However, his opponents hammered him earlier in the campaign after he told the Macon newspaper that closing the budget gap would take both more revenue and spending cuts.
He's emphasized since that he's talking only about "policies that will get this economy growing" and, he says, yield more revenue. His most specific tax recommendation is to allow multinational corporations to bring foreign profits back to the U.S. without paying taxes on the revenue. "That would mean $2.5 trillion in new investments here," he says.
If there's one distinction between Kingston and Perdue, it's on the prospects of raising the cap on what the federal treasury can borrow, commonly called "the debt ceiling."
Kingston remains unapologetic for refusing to raise the limit last October as part of a deal to end a partial government shutdown, despite voting in favor of raising the cap many times in the past. The latest increase passed with a minority of Republicans joining Democrats in both chambers of Congress.
Perdue won't say explicitly how he would have voted last year, arguing that the larger question "is what we negotiate" on a long-term budget blueprint. But he states plainly that, in the short term, raising the borrowing limit is "about meeting our obligations" that Congress has already approved, particularly making interest payments to the investors who have bought U.S. Treasury bonds.
"At the very least, we have to make those interest payments," he said. "We absolutely cannot default."
Anything less, he said, "would devastate" the overall economy.