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Top issues: Budget deficit

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Exploding deficit
  • Anger over ballooning U.S. budget deficit helps trigger Tea Party movement
  • Obama aims to cut it by '12; Republican blocked key bill because of issue
  • Federal budget deficit is how much Washington spends above what it receives
  • '09 deficit -- $1.41 trillion -- is nine times bigger than 2007's, says nonpartisan CBO

(CNN) -- In the wake of Congress' $787 billion economic stimulus bill and $700 billion TARP bailout legislation, fiscal conservatives are ringing alarm bells over how much Washington is spending beyond incoming revenue.

The federal budget deficit is expected to reach $1.56 trillion this fiscal year, up from a record $1.41 trillion in fiscal 2009, according to the Treasury Department.

To put it in perspective, the 2009 deficit is about nine times bigger than each of the 2002 and 2007 deficits, when Republicans controlled the White House and at least one chamber of Congress, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office.

But it's not the numbers that drive the debate over this issue. It's voter anger.

As reflected by the rise of the Tea Party movement, the emotional response to the ballooning deficit has been remarkable. It's been showing itself at the ballot boxes.

After Tea Partiers targeted three-term GOP Sen. Robert Bennett of Utah partly because he supported the 2008 TARP financial bailout, Republican delegates rejected Bennett at the state party convention in May. "The vote for the bailout was, in our opinion, pretty fiscally irresponsible," said Utah Tea Party activist David Kirkham.

Video: 'My jobless benefits ended'
Video: Senators debate Bunning block
Video: Protesting Bunning's block
Video: Bunning remains defiant

In Kentucky, coming off a stunning primary victory against the GOP establishment, Republican Senate candidate Rand Paul said his party must change and react to the voters' mood.

"We need to be fiscally conservative," said Paul, who enjoyed support from national Tea Party leaders. "You know, when we were in charge, we doubled the deficit, but now that the Democrats are in charge, they're tripling the deficit. So they're not doing any better than we were, but when we were in charge we didn't do a very good job either."

White House says it's committed to cutting the deficit by 2012.

Opinion: We can't afford to be cynical about deficits

Every dollar Uncle Sam spends that it doesn't have in the bank, it has to borrow. When the federal government has to borrow so much money, economists say it can lead to higher consumer interest rates for loans and perhaps rising prices for consumer goods and services. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke said continued high deficits might threaten the nation's economic recovery.

For a few weeks earlier this year it seemed like two emotional political issues were butting heads on the Senate floor: the deficit versus unemployment benefits.

Another Kentucky Republican, Sen. Jim Bunning, whose seat Paul is running for, used his key Senate vote to single-handedly block extended unemployment benefits for hundreds of thousands of jobless Americans.

Bunning said he didn't want to vote for the $10 billion bill unless Congress would figure out a way to pay for it. It was several days before Bunning agreed to end his filibuster.

To deficit hawks Bunning was a hero, but his actions were harshly criticized by many jobless Americans.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, hasn't been shy about aiming criticism at Bunning.

"Where was my friend from Kentucky when we had two wars that were unpaid for during the Bush administration?" Reid asked. Reid also mentioned the Bush administration tax cuts, which Democrats say are unpaid for.

"We don't need lectures here on debt" from the GOP, Reid said. "There are poor people all over America who are desperate today."

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