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U.S. deficit at record high and rising

The federal deficit hit $311 billion for the first half of fiscal year 2008, up from $162 billion the year before.

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Deficit? What deficit? Three big intersecting events – war in Iraq, the economic downturn, and the presidential race – this year have combined to knock fiscal discipline far down the list of Washington's policy priorities.

In fact, the federal deficit hit an all-time high of $311 billion for the first half of this budget year, reports the Treasury Department. And Congress is discussing further moves to help distressed homeowners and stimulate the economy. Iraq and Afghanistan will cost at least another $170 billion in supplemental funds through the end of next year.

Given the need, the current rush of spending might be understandable, say some deficit hawks. But they worry that Washington will use recession and war as excuses to stop caring about red ink altogether. They also warn that current deficits leave Washington ill-prepared to face an imminent explosion of spending on Social Security and Medicare caused by retiring baby boomers.

"I've spent a professional lifetime worrying about the federal budget and fiscal responsibility. And I've never been more worried than now," said Alice Rivlin, former director of the Congressional Budget Office, at a recent Brookings Institution symposium in Washington.

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