JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) -- For a group bent on getting to Washington, the Missouri Republicans seeking to succeed resigned U.S. Rep. Jo Ann Emerson don't have a very favorable impression of their desired destination.
They describe Congress as a "dysfunctional" place, spewing a "red menace" of debt that is "crushing this generation" while spending money at an "out-of-control," ''alarming and destructive" rate.
Come Saturday, one of the D.C. decriers will be chosen by an 86-person committee of party insiders as the GOP nominee to replace Emerson, who relinquished her family's 32-year hold on the southeastern Missouri seat on Jan. 22 in order to head up a national association of rural electric providers. That nominee will quickly become the favorite to win a June 4 special election in the predominantly Republican district.
Missouri's 8th District is one of three vacant congressional seats in the nation, but it's the only one where party committees are picking the nominees instead of voters. Democrats will select their nominee Feb. 16 in a similar committee meeting of regional party leaders.
The top Republican contenders in a field of nearly dozen include Missouri's lieutenant governor, several current or former state lawmakers, a pair of former state treasurers and a longtime chief of staff to Emerson and her late husband, Rep. Bill Emerson. They generally portray themselves as conservatives -- perhaps more so than Emerson, who had described herself as a one of a dwindling number of "center-right folks" in Congress.
In interviews with The Associated Press, the leading Republican candidates vented their frustrations with Washington. Many pointed to rising federal spending and debt as the United States' chief problem.
Candidate Lloyd Smith, of Sikeston, labeled the national debt as "the new red menace."
"It's putting pressure on small businesses, it's putting pressure on families, and ultimately it will destroy the country," said Smith, a former Emerson chief of staff who most recently served as the executive director of the Missouri Republican Party.
Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder of Cape Girardeau warned that the national debt "is going to crush this generation and the next two generations if we don't deal with it."
Added state Rep. Todd Richardson, of Poplar Bluff: "Unless we get that under control, the United States is going to go the way of Greece and other countries we've seen in Europe," whose economies have been damaged by debt.
And former state Sen. Jason Crowell, of Cape Girardeau, joins his fellow candidates in describing the federal government as being "out of control" for spending at "an alarming and destructive rate."
"Stop spending! Stop spending! Stop spending!" Crowell declared. "Stop regulating! Stop regulating! Stop regulating!"
Congress last week passed legislation permitting the U.S. Treasury to borrow above the current $16.4 trillion debt limit through May 18. By doing so, Congress essentially delayed the battle over the debt limit until across-the-board spending cuts take effect March 1 and funding for most federal agencies expires March 27. The measure also included a provision that temporarily blocks the pay of lawmakers in either chamber that fails to produce a budget this year.
Missouri's entire Republican congressional delegation voted for the debt limit extension, with many praising the provision docking salaries if a budget is not passed. But many seeking the 8th District nomination said they would have voted "no."
State Rep. Jason Smith, for example, said he can't envision any circumstance in which he would ever vote to raise the federal debt limit.
"Why extend it for another three months? The problem's here. Fix it. That's what they need to start doing," said Smith, of Salem.
The other GOP candidates are nearly as insistent, asserting that they won't vote to raise the debt ceiling unless Congress first passes a balanced budget amendment to the U.S. Constitution, enacts widespread spending cuts and adopts what they call "entitlement reforms" to curb the growth of such programs as Medicare and Social Security.
Among the Republican candidates, former state treasurer and ex-U.S. Rep. Wendell Bailey is perhaps the most different -- not because of his policies, but rather his pledge not to seek re-election after serving the remainder of Emerson's two-year term.
Bailey contends the midterm vacancy gives an unfair advantage to whomever the political committee chooses, because he or she could run for re-election in 2014 as an incumbent. By pledging to be merely a placeholder, Bailey said his selection would give all the prospective candidates a chance to appeal to voters in a traditional primary in August 2014.
"I do not want to go there and spend the next 20 years in Congress like so many of these candidates do," Bailey said. He added: "My message is if we select Wendell Bailey, we all win. If we do not, then we all lose."
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