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Federal debt tops $15 trillion

Total increased $56 billion in one day

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The Treasury Department said Wednesday that the federal debt has climbed to a record $15 trillion — a staggering figure that caps a precipitous decade-long rise.

The exact total stood at $15,033,607,255,920.32 as of the end of business Tuesday, marking a jump of $56 billion over Monday's tally. All told, federal debt has risen $4.407 trillion since President Obama took office. It stood at $5.7 trillion in 2001, when George W. Bush moved into the White House.

"Today marks an infamous day in American history," said House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, Wisconsin Republican.

The announcement was made a day before Congress was poised to pass a bill >that would continue the high rate of spending into 2012, and as a special committee continued to talk about ways to slow the steep rise in deficits projected for the foreseeable future.

None of those efforts would cut the debt, but would slow the rate of growth.

Republicans say that underscores the need for immediate spending cuts to get a handle on the budget.

They said Congress will have that chance this week when the House votes on a balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution.

Democrats were silent on the $15 trillion debt milepost, though on the broader issue of deficits they say the economy is so weak that it needs more spending in the short term.

In the longer term, they argue, government cannot be cut down to the size it was for most of the post-World War II era, and instead must raise taxes to pay for all of its promises such as Social Security and Medicare while funding defense, education, food stamps and other basic domestic needs.

Mr. Obama has proposed several debt-reduction plans this year, but Republicans have rejected each of them for not tackling the long-term growth of entitlement programs and instead relying too heavily on taxes. In contrast, House Republicans' budget this year focused on entitlements and didn't increase any taxes. Senate Democrats haven't brought a budget to their chamber floor in more than two years.

That leaves the two parties deadlocked, as borrowing continues apace.

Mr. Obama is averaging a debt increase of more than $1.5 trillion a year during his term in office, compared with an average of $612.4 billion for Mr. Bush and $192.5 billion a year under President Clinton.

By late Wednesday, the House and Senate Republican campaign committees began to use the debt figure in attacks on Democrats seeking election next year.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who is seeking the Republican presidential nomination, said the new figure underscores the need for a fiscal conservative to bring "responsibility back to our nation's capital."

Congress earlier this year raised the debt ceiling, which cleared the way for the record figure. Still, the government is once again running out of room before it hits the new ceiling of $15.194 trillion. The special committee working on the deficit is supposed to come up with ways to slow the increase by $1.5 trillion, which would earn another $1.5 trillion raise in the debt limit.

At it stands, debt is nearly equal to the projected U.S. gross domestic product for 2011, which the Obama administration said in its February budget would reach $15.079 trillion.

The government's debt figure is made up of two calculations: debt held by the public, which reached $10.314 trillion, and intragovernmental holdings, which is money the government borrows from accounts like the Social Security Trust Fund, which stood at $4.719 trillion.

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