U.S. Rep. Joe Sestak and former U.S. Rep. Pat Toomey, the Democrat and Republican running for U.S. Senate, agree that federal budget deficits are troubling financial problems.

Sestak and Toomey blame each other for the debt, which is a theme they'll revisit over and over until the Nov. 2 general election.

Toomey went first yesterday, gathering supporters near Independence Hall as he painted Sestak as a tax-and-spend liberal who supports budget "earmarks" for political pet projects and lacks "fiscal discipline."

Sestak responded quickly on a conference call, saying Toomey supported deficit spending under former President Bush that "did damage to American economic stability" and made things worse by helping to deregulate Wall Street.

Both politicians running to replace Sen. Arlen Specter brought fiscal experts to bolster their claims.

Toomey was endorsed by the Council for Citizens Against Government Waste, which asks candidates to sign a "no pork pledge."

Tom Schatz, the group's chairman, said it had examined 120 votes by Sestak on spending issues and gave him a zero rating.

"There's no evidence that his voting pattern will change if he's elected to the Senate," Schatz said. "Pennsylvanians cannot afford to have someone like Rep. Joe Sestak continue to dig a deep fiscal hole for the nation."

Sestak was joined on his call by Gus Faucher, an economist with Moody's Analytics, who defended Sestak's votes on controversial issues like bank bailouts and the federal stimulus package. Faucher said spending policies in the last decade ran up the deficit, with the stimulus playing a small role in that increase while helping to restart the nation's economy.

Toomey seized on a story in the Inquirer last week that noted Sestak has taken $119,000 in campaign contributions from people who work for companies receiving federal funding through earmarks. Sestak had vowed to refuse or return such campaign contributions.

Toomey called earmarks a "very deeply flawed practice."

Sestak noted that he has submitted legislation that would alter the way earmarks are distributed. He insisted the policy on campaign contributions was not done to score political points but to instill a sense of accountability in his office, though it has been tricky to keep pace with the thousands of checks that come in.

Asked if he would return the money, Sestak said he had not read the story and did not know the names of the contributors who had received earmarks.