Tea-party backers at odds with majority of Americans on debt limit

More than half of Americans who identify themselves as supporters of the tea-party movement say the government has no need to ever raise the current limit on the national debt, putting themselves at sharp odds with the majority of Americans, who say that a debt increase is “absolutely essential.”

That gap, found by a new Pew Research Center survey, underscores that the deadlock in Congress reflects a deep division in the country.

Asked if a debt ceiling increase was “absolutely essential to avoid an economic crisis,” 51% of Americans said yes, with an additional 11% saying the debt limit would have to be raised eventually but “not for several weeks.”

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Nearly one in four Americans, however, said that the limit “does not have to be raised at all.” That group included 37% of self-identified Republicans. Among those who say they identify with the tea party, 52% said the limit does not have to be raised, and an additional 15% said the country could go several weeks without a debt ceiling increase.


Some conservative members of Congress who were elected with strong tea-party backing argue the debt ceiling does not need to be raised because the Treasury could still pay interest on U.S. bonds if it stopped paying other bills. Administration officials have said they lack the legal authority to pick and choose which bills to pay and that, in any case, they would not be willing to put interest payments on bonds ahead of other obligations such as Social Security checks or Medicare reimbursements.

Americans increasingly express concerns about the economic impact of the two-week-old shutdown of government programs, with 57% now saying they are “very concerned” — up from 48% a week ago. Concern is highest among self-identified Democrats, but half of Republicans and independents now say they are “very concerned.” Among Republicans who identify with the tea party, just 30% say they are “very concerned,” while 37% express little or no concern.

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As other surveys have found, the Pew poll shows Americans blaming Republicans more than Democrats or President Obama for the shutdown. But unlike some polls, the Pew survey did not find that the GOP position has hugely worsened over the past week. The poll found Americans blaming the GOP over the Obama administration by a nine-point margin, 46% to 37%, a smaller gap than in some other recent surveys.

Only 20% of those surveyed said they approve of how Republican leaders are handling their jobs, compared with 43% who approve of Obama’s performance. In both cases, those numbers are only slightly worse than they have been for the past month. A chief reason that approval of the GOP leadership is so low is that fewer than half of Republicans approve of how their party leaders are doing their jobs. By contrast, Democrats are largely united behind Obama.

Nearly three-quarters of Americans in the survey said they would like to see all members of Congress beaten in the next election, a much higher percentage than in previous election cycles. Almost four in 10 said they wanted to see their own representative defeated — a number as high as any in the past two decades, the pollsters said. In the run-up to the 2010 midterm election, only 29% said they wanted to see their own representative lose.

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Democrats have an edge over Republicans when pollsters asked which party respondents would vote for in the next congressional election. But the six-point edge, 49% to 43%, is not big enough to forecast an actual Democratic victory, in part because Democratic voters turn out less reliably than Republicans in midterm elections and in part because a big majority of Republicans in Congress represent heavily GOP districts. In the lead-up to the 2006 election, when Democrats took control of Congress, the party had a 12-point edge on that question.

And on some other questions, Republicans continue to hold their own, the survey indicated. Americans were closely divided on which party can better manage the federal government, with 42% saying the GOP and 39% the Democrats. Democrats had an edge on that question a year ago. By 44% to 37%, Americans sided with the Republicans on a question about which party is better able to handle the U.S. economy.

On the other hand, by large margins, Americans see Democrats as more willing to work with the other party than Republicans, and they perceive Republicans as being “more extreme” in their positions. Among the one-third of Republicans who call themselves moderates or liberals, 54% say they see their own party as more extreme, compared with 39% who see the Democrats as extremists.

The latest poll, conducted Oct. 9-13, surveyed 1,504 American adults. The margin of error for the full sample is plus or minus 2.9 percentage points.

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