WASHINGTON (AP) – Sen. John McCain deployed heavy sarcasm. Fellow Republican Marsha Blackburn trotted out a chart. A group of conservative House Republicans mocked: “‘Deficit we inherited?’ … Spare us the false outrage.”

The war between Republicans and Democrats to frame the blame for the economy erupted in earnest this week.

Republicans pushed back against President Barack Obama’s claim – echoed relentlessly by his Cabinet members and Democrats in Congress – that he didn’t cause the mess and shouldn’t be judged yet on obligating taxpayers for a trillion dollars trying to fix it.

Just how long Democrats can credibly argue that they’re merely responding to – and not responsible for – a crisis created under Republican predecessors depends on which political and economic fortune tellers are doing the predicting.

“Not for too much longer,” says Stanley Renshon, a professor of political psychology at the City University of New York. “People are distracted by the sideshow only for so long, especially when the evidence is all around them. Every day brings a new cash infusion for a new industry, and the stocks drop.”

Polls show that voters are taking a wait-and-see posture toward the blur of legislation flowing between the White House and Congress, from the bailout money to a $410 billion spending bill that includes funding for thousands of lawmakers’ pet projects.

Obama dispatched his economic team to Capitol Hill to repeat the same message he started delivering in January when he rolled out his stimulus package, continuing through his address to Congress and the rollout of his budget last week.

“My budget does not attempt to solve every problem or address every issue,” Obama said. “It reflects the stark reality of what we’ve inherited – a trillion-dollar deficit, a financial crisis and a costly recession.”

This week, Republicans responded. McCain took aim at the $410 billion spending bill to keep the government running, specifically Obama’s willingness to accept thousands of pet projects that it would fund. Orszag, McCain noted, called the so-called earmarks “last year’s business.”

“Last year’s business? Does that mean last year’s president will sign this pork barrel bill?” McCain railed from the Senate floor.

“It is the president’s business. It is the business of the president of the United States.”

Other Republicans turned to various stimulus packages, pointing out that Obama and other key Democrats voted for last year’s stimulus checks, mortgage insurance and bailouts of Wall Street and the auto industry. Those votes, they said, could well have helped add to the deficit that Democrats are characterizing as the product of a Republican administration.

“It’s not fair to blame the prior administration for everything,” Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, told Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner.

Over in the House chamber, Blackburn unveiled a tricolor chart titled, “The Deficit They Didn’t Inherit.”

She then turned to the jittery stock market and employed phrasing designed to point blame back across the aisle.

“The stock market has voted on the Obama economic policies, on Pelosi-Reid economic policies, and they have obviously voted, ‘No,”‘ she proclaimed.

Congressional hearings also became key arenas for the battling messages.

Geithner used the inheritance argument more than a dozen times during his appearance Tuesday before the House Ways and Means Committee. He claimed repeatedly that any deficit increase from the stimulus legislation will be short-term. Obama, after all, has pledged to halve the “inherited” deficit in his first presidential term.

Republicans engaged. Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., asked Geithner to confirm that all of the stimulus legislation since early 2008 was “supported by President Obama and his administration and your office.”

“We’re starting, before anything happens, (with) a $1.2 trillion deficit … built up over the last eight years, magnified by the costs of this crisis,” Geithner responded.

“Built up over the last 220 years,” Nunes corrected.

True, parried Geithner, but it accelerated in recent years and culminated in the current crisis.

“A crisis we’re inheriting,” he added, “that’s going to require very substantial additional action to fix the financial system and get the economy back on track.”

Democratic lawmakers with their ears to the ground seemed to sense that they can’t keep that argument going forever.

“It’s hard to understand for a lot of families when they keep seeing things get worse and we’re still pouring money there,” said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash.

Mused House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charlie Rangel, D-N.Y.: “The fact that we inherited it doesn’t mean that we don’t have the responsibility to work our way out of this.”

AP-ES-03-05-09 1448EST

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