Jonathan Ellis, USA TODAY
SIOUX FALLS, S.D. -- Republicans in Congress could take President Barack Obama to court if the president decides to lift the nation's debt limit without congressional approval, Sen. John Thune said Wednesday.
Thune said the president doesn't have the constitutional authority to lift the debt ceiling, even though Democrats in Congress are encouraging the president to try.
A divided Congress faces another nasty showdown in the next six weeks to lift the debt ceiling beyond $16.3 trillion. The president this week framed the debate as Congress needing to pay the debts it's incurred. But Thune said the debate also should include spending cuts to address the reasons why the nation has the debt, and he said past spending reforms have been tied to the debt ceiling.
"I don't know when it happens, but this thing is going to blow up on us if we don't do something," Thune said of the debt.
Thune made his comments at a town hall meeting Wednesday that focused on the national debt, spending and tax reform.
The only way to address the national debt in a substantial way is to make reforms to entitlement programs, including Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, Thune said. Solutions to Medicare include phasing in age adjustments so that younger people wouldn't be eligible to join the program until later in age, and to require wealthier Medicare recipients pay into the systems in order to get benefits.
"I don't know when it happens, but this thing is going to blow up on us if we don't do something."
- Sen. John Thune, R-South Dakota
The senator defended his New Year's Eve vote on a package that left taxes on income rates in place for all but those making $400,000 or more a year, or couples making $450,000. The measure also locked into place exemptions on estate taxes, which Thune said was important for farmers and ranchers who worried a large estate tax meant the loss of the family farm.
Conservatives, however, criticized the package because it didn't include spending cuts to government programs. When asked why he voted for the measure, Thune said he did it to keep taxes low for 99 percent of Americans.
"There's been a lot of criticism, and I understand that," Thune said. "There are things in there I absolutely hated."
Several people at the town hall expressed frustrations about Republicans in Congress being unable to get their messages out and to effectively block the Obama administration and Senate Democrats.
"I'm concerned for our country, and I just feel like we're losing it every day," said Jim Holiway of Sioux Falls. Holiway asked Thune what actions he would take to prevent the federal government from becoming more centralized.
Later, following the town hall, Holiway said he wished Republican elected officials would make speeches and take to the airwaves the way Democrats did when they were in the minority.
"When they were in the minority, they would holler to high heaven," Holiway said.
Politicians have become more reluctant to hold town halls for fear angry voters will confront them and the exchanges will be used in campaign commercials. Thune is the only member of the South Dakota delegation who consistently holds town halls.
At least one Democrat, former state lawmaker Darrell Solberg, asked Thune to clarify whether Medicare and Social Security were separate funds and their relations to the national debt.
Democrat Tom Cool said Republican presidents Reagan and Bush tripled the national debt, but Republicans didn't worry about it then. Cool said the debt won't be brought under control by Republicans in the House refusing to extend the debt ceiling.
"I don't know how elephants can have such poor memories," Cool said.
Ellis also reports for The (Sioux Falls, S.D.) Argus Leader