Raise the debt ceiling? Not without progress on deficits, US public says.

Some 57 percent of Americans oppose legislation that would raise the debt ceiling with no conditions attached, according to a new Christian Science Monitor/TIPP survey.

Jonathan Ernst/Reuters
A general view of the US Capitol Dome in Washington, October 4, 2013.

President Obama says Congress should raise a self-imposed limit on government borrowing without strings attached and without worrying about the size of federal deficits. The American public disagrees.

In a new Christian Science Monitor/TIPP survey of public opinion, only 38 percent of Americans voice support for “legislation to raise the debt ceiling” without any conditions attached.

Some 57 percent say they oppose such legislation.

But when asked if they’d allow more federal borrowing if the legislation included a commitment not to raise government spending, Americans in the poll would support the measure by a narrow 50 to 46 percent margin.

This doesn’t mean the US public is staunchly on the side of congressional Republicans in the fiscal debates that have roiled Washington, causing a partial government shutdown as lawmakers failed to pass funding legislation for the new fiscal year.

In fact, the new Monitor/TIPP survey joins other polls in showing that Republicans garner even more criticism for their political leadership than the president or his fellow Democrats do.

Perhaps the big point to emerge from polling about the debt limit, though, is that the American public cares about getting the nation’s fiscal house in order. And they want to see the two sides try to work together.

The Monitor/TIPP poll, conducted from Sept. 28 through Oct. 2, found a 56 percent majority saying Mr. Obama should negotiate with Congress over the shape of legislation to raise the borrowing cap. Conversely, 41 percent agreed with the president’s stated position that he will not negotiate over the issue – because the goal is simply “to allow the Treasury to pay the bills for the money that Congress has already spent.”

In another new poll, by CBS News, almost 8 in 10 respondents say the parties in Washington should “compromise” rather than “stick to their positions.”

For all the apparent gridlock in Washington right now, it’s possible that some sort of compromise could emerge in coming days or weeks. Obama’s stated opposition to bargaining over a debt-limit hike, for one thing, doesn’t mean that members of the House and Senate can’t talk.

The debt limit currently stands at $16.7 trillion. A failure to increase the limit would mean the Treasury would be unable to meet all its obligations. That would raise a dangerous prospect for financial markets: the risk of default on some treasury-bond payments to America’s creditors. At a minimum, it would mean that some federal obligations could not be met, which Treasury officials this week described as “default by another name.”

In the CBS News poll, respondents were asked to choose among three paths forward on the debt ceiling. Some 23 percent said it should be raised without conditions, 55 percent said it should be raised only if spending is cut at the same time, and 20 percent said it should not be raised even if that leads to default.

The public preference for greater efforts at deficit reduction comes even as Obama has sought to play down the urgency of that issue. “Our deficits are falling at the fastest pace in 50 years. We’ve cut them in half since I took office,” he said on Oct. 1.

What all sides also acknowledge, however, is that the national debt is already high and that annual deficits are on track to rise again to unsustainable levels in the long term. That’s mainly due to the rising cost of paying for federal health-care programs and a related rise in interest on the debt.

The Congressional Budget Office, in a recent report, sketched a forecast of how US living standards would take a hit if the problem isn’t addressed.

It’s not easy to rally the public around specific changes to entitlement programs or taxes. Still, both politicians and the public know that resolving this long-term challenge will involve some tough choices.

One big challenge to forging political compromises – whether about health-care programs or other budget matters – is that many politicians march to drummers that differ from the signals in national polls. Most House members and many senators have been voted into office by local electorates firmly in one political camp or the other. Lots of campaign-contribution money, too, comes from individuals or groups with strong right or left leanings.

If the political wrangling over budget and debt policies persists, however, it could start to take a toll on the whole economy – damaging the pocketbooks of Americans whatever their political stripes.

The Treasury Department on Thursday issued a report warning of dire harm to the economy if the debt limit is not raised by about Oct. 17, when the ability to cover all bills will start to come into question.

The public seems at least somewhat aware of the risks.

In the Monitor/TIPP poll, conducted by TechnoMetrica Market Intelligence, respondents were asked to rate how much the economy would be harmed if the debt limit is not raised and the Treasury can’t cover all its bills. One in 3 said the impact would be severe, and 44 percent said it would do moderate harm.

In a recent CNN/ORC poll, 56 percent of respondents said a failure to raise the debt ceiling would be a “bad thing” for the country, while 38 percent said it would be a “good thing.”

And Gallup’s daily tracking of Americans’ economic confidence has gone sharply negative in recent days, hitting its lowest level since December 2011.

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