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Both Parties Losing In Debt Standoff

House Republicans leave the White House Wednesday after meeting with President Obama about the debt ceiling.
Charles Dharapak
House Republicans leave the White House Wednesday after meeting with President Obama about the debt ceiling.

The debt ceiling show vote in the House is now in the rearview mirror, Wall Street having been fully briefed that the GOP-orchestrated rejection of a national borrowing limit increase would signify absolutely nothing.

The House Republicans-visit-the-White House-for-debt-ceiling-talks charade has also wrapped up, but not before a bout of chest-puffing and sputtering over who's demagoguing whom.

"Demagoguing" having emerged as the Beltway's new favorite buzzword.
Because it's something so very unusual.

And party leaders remained publicly intransigent Wednesday over political compromises necessary to forge an agreement that would raise the debt ceiling before the nation hits its $14.3 trillion borrowing capacity by Aug. 2.

Treasury Department officials have warned that failure to raise the nation's ability to borrow by about $2 trillion could lead to a catastrophic "default crisis." Merely scare tactics, charge some House conservatives.

And voters watching at home? It's a fair bet that Congress's current disapproval rating, which has been hovering north of 70 percent, won't be improving anytime soon.

"Right now, both parties are in a place that is potentially hazardous," says Jennifer Duffy, senior editor for the Cook Political Report, which analyzes political races.

Promises Made, Kept?

Republicans, especially Tea Party-fueled House freshmen, ran on a promise not to raise the debt limit and are also adamant that taxes not be increased.

Democrats are equally determined to block GOP efforts to link cuts to entitlement programs like Medicare with any agreement to raise the debt limit.

They are also pushing for "revenue enhancements" as part of the debt ceiling/debt-reduction calculation.

The White House has repeatedly warned that it believes if drastic cuts to domestic spending are linked to raising the debt ceiling, the nation's still-fragile economic recovery could stall.

So how do they reach common ground and avoid potential economic damage from a failure to address the debt limit?

"If I had the answer to this, I would probably be very wealthy," Duffy says. "But I don't think anyone's kidding themselves about what this means." Both in terms of market uncertainty and political repercussions.

The problem for both parties: polls show that Americans are more concerned about raising the debt limit than about government default. But a majority of those surveyed also oppose the Republican proposal for Medicare changes.

"There is political risk on both sides of the aisle," says Nathan Gonzales, political editor of The Rothenberg Political Report, a nonpartisan newsletter.

The people following the debt limit debate most closely? "Conservatives who are likely to vote in Republican primaries," Gonzales says.

GOP Fallout

Republicans have been reeling over public reaction to their House-approved budget plan that would turn Medicare into a subsidy program and make deep cuts to Medicaid programs for the poor and disabled.

Results of a CNN/Opinion Research Corp. survey released Wednesday showed that 58 percent of Americans oppose the GOP Medicare plan, with 56 percent saying that it would be "bad for the elderly."

House GOP leaders appear to have gotten that message. When they emerged from Wednesday's White House meeting with President Obama, they talked not of Medicare changes but of jobs and tax policy.

The president, according to Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA), "admitted" during that meeting that the economy has to grow. And Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) said that the president heard about "unshackling small businesses to get them working again."

How that relates to pressing negotiations on the debt ceiling was not made clear.

What it did show, however, is that Republicans got the message of last week, Duffy said.

"They clearly did not sell the Medicare proposal," she said. "They want to change the subject and talk about something else to suggest they get the problem — which was really was a question last week."

Democrats And Spending

Obama had initially asked for a "clean" vote on the debt ceiling increase, something with no strings attached, not spending cuts or entitlement reform.

But Republican pressure has forced Democrats to the table. Vice President Biden has been shepherding a bipartisan group of legislators attempting to come up with a menu of spending cuts and new revenue that would be linked with the borrowing increase.

"The danger for Democrats is passing a debt limit increase with no accountability — American people don't want that," Duffy says. "And they cannot just pass a clean debt limit bill."

A group of Senate Democrats led by New Jersey Sen. Robert Menendez thinks it has a solution to the question of raising revenues — without raising individual taxes.

In a letter to the Biden, the senators called for ending billions of dollars in tax breaks for the "Big 5" oil companies.

The Senate in May by a 52-48 vote rejected a similar effort by Democrats to pass a bill to repeal more than $20 billion in oil company tax breaks.

"In terms of revenue enhancers, they will do the least they can do to a sector that affects the fewest people," Duffy predicted. "It doesn't help the oil and gas industry that they're not the most popular kids on the block."

What's The Rush?

[The] people paying the most attention right now are the most partisan, and they're the ones ratcheting up the heat to play to the extremes.

Most analysts see the impasse over the debt limit remaining until the ticking clock sounds much louder.

"The nature of this debate almost guarantees that this is going to be another deadline deal," Gonzales says. "The two sides have taken such extreme positions, if they come to an agreement in the next couple weeks, the bases of each party will say: 'Why didn't you hold out for a better deal? Why those cuts? Why those tax increases?' "

Says Duffy: "Congress is very, very good at getting done what they need to get done at the last minute possible."

"They will probably do that again, and then go home for the August recess and get an earful," she says.

An earful from voters who want the economy to improve, who want jobs and government medical coverage when they retire, and who, for a while, just may be more willing to compromise than their current representatives in Washington.

"But the people paying the most attention right now are the most partisan, and they're the ones ratcheting up the heat to play to the extremes," Gonzales say.

"I don't think we'll know the political fallout of the vote this year — it will be next year," he says. "And it depends on how raising the debt ceiling is viewed in the progress of the economy."

Winners and losers in the debt showdown will depend on what the economy and political environment is next summer, he says, not this summer.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Liz Halloran joined NPR in December 2008 as Washington correspondent for Digital News, taking her print journalism career into the online news world.