Constituents getting savvier on debt ceiling

McClatchy NewspapersJuly 20, 2011 

WASHINGTON — As the end game in the political battle of wills over raising the debt ceiling approaches, the switchboards on Capitol Hill have been lighting up.

"Stop bickering and compromise on a solution," said a caller to the office of Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, D-Mo.

"Stop spending and don't raise taxes," said another.

They reflect the deadlock over the issue between Congress and the White House.

But a plan this week from a bipartisan group in the Senate to trim the deficit by $3.7 trillion over the next decade has inched up hopes that the impasse can be solved.

"Initially, the thoughts were, don't raise the debt ceiling no matter what," said freshman Rep. Renee Ellmers, R-N.C. "People are changing their minds a little bit. I'm leaving it open, I'm listening to all my constituents, and ultimately, we're going to make a decision when we see what the president's plan is. I'm hoping we're not going to go to the deadline."

The debt ceiling debate didn't start out as such an explosive issue. It is, after all, a pretty unlikely topic to become such a political tinderbox.

As White House Press Secretary Jay Carney told reporters recently, "Honestly, did anybody in this room — before they had to cover issues like this — have any idea what a debt ceiling was?"

It basically means the government has hit the limit — $14.3 trillion — on its credit card. The fight has been over whether Congress will allow it to borrow more money so Washington can pay its bills by Aug. 2.

Led by President Barack Obama, advocates for raising the limit say that not doing so would damage the economic recovery and cause serious harm to America's global standing.

They point to Moody's and other influential credit rating services, which have warned of a possible downgrade if the deadline passes without action on the debt.

Opponents, primarily a group of Republican freshmen in the House elected on campaigns to lower budgets and reduce taxes, are using the deadline to extract changes that make good on their pledges.

Freshman Rep. Vicky Hartzler, R-Mo., said the message from her constituents is clear: "Don't give in. Draw a line in the sand."

Suddenly, one of the wonkiest of Washington issues has become a political cause celebre. With the 2012 elections looming and the tea party movement surging, the charged atmosphere is a possible harbinger of what's to come.

The public didn't immediately seize on the issue as it did in the fractious debate over health care reform two years ago. But several congressional offices say that their constituents became more focused as media coverage intensified.

"Many of them are scared at what that (the debt) means for the future of the country," said Rep. Glenn Thompson, R-Penn.

Rep. David Price, D-N.C., said his office probably has heard from about 300 constituents either by telephone or email. The sentiments about whether to raise the ceiling were split.

"It started out with more people saying, 'Don't raise the debt ceiling,'" Price said. "It's tilting more towards those wanting to protect Social Security and Medicare and be sure that...we don't do damage to the safety net or middle-class concerns."

That's reflected in polling. A CBS News survey in early June found that nearly 70 percent of the public was opposed to raising the debt ceiling and about a quarter was for it.

Last week, the numbers were nearly even: 49 percent were against an increase, 46 percent were in favor.

"We have had a mix of calls, from, 'Stand your ground, do not compromise,' and we have others that say, 'Look you need to raise the debt ceiling, but you need to solve our long-term problems in the process,'" said freshman Rep. Kevin Yoder, R-Kan. "Then there are others who say this shouldn't even be a political issue."

(James Rosen, Erika Bolstad and Michael Doyle contributed to this article.)

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McClatchy Newspapers 2011

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