A Divided Public Is Fueling the Debt-Limit Clash

A new poll shows Democratic and Republican voters pulling their leaders in opposite directions on spending cuts and raising the federal ceiling

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As Republicans and Democrats scuffle over how best to raise the federal government's debt ceiling by next Tuesday, a new survey suggests that Republicans might be more politically constrained and may find it harder to reach an accommodation.

The new United Technologies/National Journal Congressional Connection Poll gauged attitudes about the debt-ceiling controversy. It found that Republicans are less enthusiastic than Democrats or Independents about a plan to raise the debt ceiling that is developed by both parties and would be less likely to support a debt-limit increase if it is developed by Democrats and Republicans rather than leaders in just one party.

While a majority of Democrats favored a debt-ceiling plan with bipartisan origins, only a plurality of Republicans felt that way. Some 56 percent of Democrats were more likely to favor a plan if it was developed by both parties while only 47 percent of Republicans felt that way. This suggests that Republican members of Congress might feel more constrained by the base of their party as they search for a compromise.

The poll was conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates International on July 21-24, surveying 999 adults. The poll has a 3.8-point margin of error for the full sample (the margin is larger for sample subgroups). This poll was the first in a series of national surveys that will track the public's priorities for Congress--and its assessment of Washington's performance--during most weeks that Congress is in session through 2012.

On Monday night both President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) addressed the American public about raising the debt ceiling, and each offered their own narrative about how the nation had reached this point--both in terms of accumulating some $14 trillion in national debt and how the efforts to raise the debt-ceiling had reached such loggerheads.

In light of the United Technologies/National Journal Congressional Connection Poll, the comments of both men reflect the contrasting center of gravity in their parties. Obama tended to stress compromise, which appealed to the Democratic base. He also put more of an emphasis on social programs that he said would be cut if what he called a "balanced approach" was not used to raise the debt ceiling. When respondents were asked, "In the debate over proposals to increase the federal debt ceiling, which of the following possible outcomes concern you the most?" a majority of Democrats said they were most concerned about "an agreement that cuts too much from government programs like Medicare and Social Security."

By contrast, Democrats expressed less concern about "a default on the federal debt that could raise interest rates for things like mortgages and consumer loans" (16 percent); "an agreement that raises taxes on people like you" (14 percent); or "an agreement that authorizes too much federal spending in the next few years" (13 percent). In other words, Obama spoke in a language that Democrats intuitively understood.

When Boehner addressed the nation with more of an emphasis on the growth of government than on the retrenchment of social programs that would likely take place under any debt-ceiling agreement, he too was speaking to his base. Only 25 percent of Republicans are most concerned that an agreement on the debt cuts too much from government programs like Medicare and Social Security. A larger share of Republicans worries that the agreement will authorize too much spending (32 percent).

Overall, neither political party can draw too much comfort from these results. While the public expressed more faith in President Obama than congressional Republicans on reducing the federal government's long-term debt--46 percent for President Obama versus 34 percent for Republicans--neither side commands a majority. Attitudes broke down by party in familiar ways with a bit more than three-fourths of Republicans preferring the GOP and more than 80 percent of Democrats picking Obama. Again, each party has a base on which it can rely.

There's no telling where public attitudes will head if Congress and the president can't reach an agreement on a debt-ceiling increase by August 2. Either party--or both--could receive significant blame. Even if a deal is struck that raises the debt ceiling and, as is likely, reduces the federal spending by a significant amount over the next decade, it will raise a thorny set of issues for Congress. All of the spending and debt-limit hike plans under consideration by Congress are vague and gauzy with details to be filled in at a later date either by a special commission created by Congress (as has been proposed in some plans) or by Congress itself. How Congress cuts spending in key areas like entitlements, defense spending, discretionary spending, and other areas will be contentious and, if the United Technologies/National Journal Congressional Connection Poll offers any indication, it will be broken down along party lines among an electorate that remains deeply divided.

Image credit: Susan E Adams/Flickr