Ten days left: Is deficit 'super committee' feeling heat of public opinion?

Public expectations are low that Congress's 'super committee' can strike a deal to shrink huge US deficit, polls show. But Congress's image is likely to take another hit if gridlock again prevails. 

Joshua Lott/Reuters
A protester who is demanding Republican Senator Jon Kyl to help cut Washington's annual deficit, which has been topping $1 trillion a year, holds a sign outside his office in Phoenix, Arizona, last week. He is part of a large and increasingly personal lobbying campaign to sway the six Republicans and six Democrats on the deficit 'super committee' as they approach a November 23 deadline for striking a deal to trim the fiscal shortfall by at least $1.2 trillion over 10 years.

Public opinion of Congress is already on the rocks, but if its designated debt "super committee" cannot devise a bipartisan deficit-reduction plan in the 10 days remaining until its deadline, congressional standing is likely to drop further – and barometers of economic confidence could slide right along with it, a new poll warns.

A Gallup poll released Monday afternoon shows congressional approval ratings at a record-low 13 percent. Failure of the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction to meet its mandate – to craft a plan by Nov. 23 to reduce the US deficit by at least $1.2 trillion over 10 years – could drive that approval rating even lower, says Frank Newport, Gallup's editor in chief. 

“This deficit reduction deal has symbolic importance above and beyond trimming $1.2 trillion,” he says. “It’s symbolic of how well Congress can get its act together in the eyes of the public. Failure would hurt not only the image of Congress, if it could go any lower, but also hurt consumer confidence, which would in turn have an impact on the economy.”

Already, at least 2 in 3 Americans say they expect the 12-member debt panel to fail to strike a deal, according to a separate poll released Monday, from Politico/George Washington University. Just 21 percent said the panel would succeed.

The 12-member panel has already missed its own soft deadline to get a deficit-reduction package to the Congressional Budget Office at least two weeks before Nov. 23 – the time frame that CBO director Douglas Elmendorf told the panel is needed to assess the fiscal impact of the plan.

Whether public opinion is acting as a spur for the debt panel to come up with something is hard to tell. Lawmakers from each party are busy calculating whether their ranks will take it on the chin in next November's elections if congressional wrestling over debt and deficit ends – again – in gridlock. 

But another prime example of deadlock certainly won't help – either Congress's image or the economy. As Congress took its pitched battle over raising the national debt limit right up to the point of default on Aug. 2, consumer confidence plunged 20 points in July and August.

“If the debt committee doesn’t succeed, it can be negative for many aspects of society, including consumer confidence,” says Gallup's Mr. Newport.

The tanking approval ratings are shared evenly across the political spectrum. Whether survey respondents are Republicans, Democrats, or independents, Congress's approval rating falls between a paltry 11 and 15 percent, according to the Gallup poll. Other polls show low public confidence in the honesty and ethics of members of Congress and low satisfaction with the way the nation is being governed.

In July, Congress's debt-limit negotiations were summarized by nearly 3 in 4 respondents – from liberal Democrats to tea party Republicans – in words such as ridiculous, disgusting, stupid, frustrating, childish, and a joke, according to a survey by Pew Research Center for the People & the Press.

Last week, Sen. Charles Schumer (D) of New York, who is not a member of the super committee, predicted that the panel would fail, because Republican will refuse to consider tax increases.

Since then, Sen. Pat Toomey (R) of Pennsylvania, a debt committee member, proposed a plan that includes at least $250 billion in tax hikes, to help close on a deal.

“If I were king, this is not the plan I would put on the table,” he told "Fox News Sunday." “But if we both went into our respective corners and had no flexibility at all, then we wouldn’t get anything accomplished.”

Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R) of Texas, cochairman of the super committee, told CNN’s "State of the Union" on Sunday that he could support a two-step process favored by Democrats that specifies by Nov. 23 spending cuts and some tax hikes, but that mandates the tax-writing committees of the House and Senate to find others by a fixed date.

“We haven’t given up hope, but if this was easy the president and the speaker of the House would have gotten this done themselves,” he said.

In a press briefing Monday, House majority leader Eric Cantor (R) of Virginia declined to take a position on the Toomey offer. “I know how difficult it is and how much pressure they are under,” he said. “We have got to let them do their work. I'm hopeful that there will be a good result come the Nov. 23 deadline.”

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