WASHINGTON — The nation faces a crushing burden of debt and is on course for an economic disaster without dramatic action to wrestle the budget deficit under control, Republicans said while awaiting the president's State of the Union address.
"Our nation is approaching a tipping point. We are at a moment, where if government's growth is left unchecked and unchallenged, America's best century will be considered our past century," said House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., who was tapped to give the official GOP response to Obama's Tuesday night speech to Congress and the nation.
In excerpts released before Obama spoke, Ryan vowed that Republicans will insist on spending cuts before contemplating any increase in the government's ability to borrow.
"We believe the days of business as usual must come to an end. We hold to a couple of simple convictions: Endless borrowing is not a strategy; spending cuts have to come first," Ryan said.
Ryan will be the point man in the new House GOP majority's drive to rein in spending and bring the budget closer to balance. Tuesday's speech is the highest profile assignment yet for a wonky former congressional staff aide who has evolved into one of his party's brightest stars.
Ryan is best known for a controversial budget plan brimming with politically unpopular ideas like gradually turning Medicare into a voucher program, curbing Social Security benefits and allowing younger workers to divert Social Security taxes into private accounts. He says such tough steps are needed, given intractable budget deficits that threaten America's prosperity.
Ryan's plan, the "Roadmap for America," is so politically toxic that GOP campaign operatives urged candidates to shy away from it. Democrats went on the attack as soon as Ryan was named to deliver Tuesday's GOP response.
"Paul Ryan owes it to the national audience tonight to explain why he wants to privatize Social Security and Medicare," said Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y
Instead, Ryan, who often peppers his speeches with straight talk about the need for painful cost curbs to benefit programs like Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, did not offer such "tough love" in his Tuesday text.
"We need to reclaim our American system of limited government, low taxes, reasonable regulations and sound money, which has blessed us with unprecedented prosperity," Ryan said. "And it has done more to help the poor than any other economic system ever designed."
Ryan acknowledged that there's plenty of blame to go around.
"Our debt is the product of acts by many presidents and many Congresses over many years. No one person or party is responsible for it. There is no doubt the president came into office facing a severe fiscal and economic situation," Ryan said. "Unfortunately, instead of restoring the fundamentals of economic growth, he engaged in a stimulus spending spree that not only failed to deliver on its promise to create jobs, but also plunged us even deeper into debt."
Obama was to make his speech before a House chamber packed with tea party-backed GOP freshmen elected with a determination to slash spending and thwart the president's agenda.
In an unusual move, tea party favorite Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., was set to follow Ryan's response with a nationally televised speech of her own. It was originally aimed just at tea party activists but is also being broadcast live by CNN.
"Last November many of you went to the polls and voted out big-spending politicians and you put in their place men and women who have come to Washington with a commitment to follow the Constitution and cut the size of government," Bachmann said in excerpts released Tuesday evening. "We are in the early days of a history-making turn here in the House of Representatives."
Obama's call for a freeze on the annual operating budgets of most domestic agencies doesn't go far enough for Republicans. They are also deeply skeptical of his plan for investments in education, infrastructure, and research and development.
"At a time when the Treasury secretary is begging Congress to raise the debt limit, a 'freeze' is simply inadequate," House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said.
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