Poll: Most see damage if US debt limit not raised

Friday - 1/18/2013, 3:20am EST

By ALAN FRAM and JENNIFER AGIESTA
Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) - Most Americans think jarring economic problems will erupt if lawmakers fail to increase the government's borrowing limit. Yet they're torn over how or even whether to raise it, leaning toward Republican demands that any boost be accompanied by spending cuts.

According to an Associated Press-GfK poll, 53 percent say that if the debt limit is not extended and the U.S. defaults, the country will face a major economic crisis. An additional 27 percent say such a crisis would be somewhat likely, while just 17 percent largely dismiss the prospects of such damage.

Separately, Republican officials said Wednesday that GOP lawmakers may seek a short-term extension of the debt limit, thus avoiding a default as early as next month by the U.S. Treasury while they try to negotiate spending cuts with President Barack Obama over the next few months.

"The worst thing for the economy is for this Congress and this administration to do nothing to get our debt and deficits under control," said Rep. Paul Ryan, the party's 2012 vice presidential candidate who is chairman of the House Budget Committee.

The poll's findings echo many economists' warnings that failure to raise the debt ceiling and the resulting, unprecedented federal default would risk wounding the world economy because many interest rates are pegged to the trustworthiness of the U.S. to pay its debts. Obama and many Republicans agree with that, though some GOP lawmakers eager to force Obama to accept spending cuts have downplayed a default's impact.

When asked which political path to follow, 39 percent of poll respondents support the insistence by House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., that deep spending cuts be attached to any measure increasing the debt ceiling. That's more than the 30 percent who back Obama's demand that borrowing authority be raised quickly and not entwined with a bitter fight over trimming the budget.

An additional 21 percent oppose boosting the debt ceiling at all.

The survey was conducted as the two parties gird for a debt-limit battle that is likely to dominate the next two months in the capital. The fight is sure to underscore partisan differences over how to curb federal deficits that have surpassed $1 trillion for four straight years. Obama insists that besides spending cuts there should be more tax increases on the wealthy, which the GOP opposes.

While saying he will refuse to negotiate on the debt ceiling, Obama has said he will bargain separately on finding ways to reduce the annual federal deficit.

Despite the majority in the survey who fear severe economic problems if the debt limit is not raised, in a separate question only about 3 in 10 supported the general idea of increasing the ceiling. Four in 10 opposed it, with the rest expressing neutral feelings.

Democrats were about twice as likely as Republicans to support boosting the borrowing limit, while Republicans were likelier than Democrats by a similar margin to oppose an increase.

The government reached its $16.4 trillion borrowing limit Dec. 31 but has avoided default by using cash from pension and other funds it administers, money that will eventually be replaced. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner has said his ability to use such bookkeeping measures will be exhausted by early March or sooner.

Wayne Wiedrich, 46, an engineering inspector in Williston, N.D., said in a poll follow-up interview that he agrees that failure to boost the debt ceiling would risk severe problems.

"But on the other hand, it's not doing the economy any good to raise the debt limit, print money and spend money we don't have. One of these days China will come knocking on our door and say, `We own you,'" he said, referring to the country that holds more U.S. debt than any other nation.

Homemaker Sherry Giordano, 59, of Feasterville, Pa., disagreed.

"It has to be done," she said of raising the borrowing limit. "We shouldn't risk our reputation or spend money and time arguing about it. We have to pay our debts."

The survey showed slight shifts in concerns about the economy and federal budget deficits. Eighty-six percent consider the economy a top issue, down 5 percentage points from last summer, while 76 percent have the same view on federal deficits, up 7 points since then.

Around one-third expect the economy to worsen over the next year, the highest figure in AP-GfK polling in nearly two years. Less than 1 in 4 think the economy is in good shape, a fairly stable number since last summer.