WaPo/ABC poll shows wide majority want debt limit, spending treated separately

The new WaPo/ABC poll result doesn’t exactly contain any surprises, but it does corroborate Barack Obama’s winning streak on messaging.  With House Republicans on a retreat this week to consider strategies for dealing with the newly-re-elected President and a Senate that refuses to produce budgets, this data should have some questioning the impact of their disunity and lack of consistent messaging:

Republicans in the poll have also led the revival in Obama’s “strong leader” number. Overall, 61 percent see the president as a strong leader, up from 51 percent a year ago. Since then, there has been a 17-point increase among Republicans, from 18 to 35 percent.

Nearly half of Republicans also take the president’s side when it comes to one important aspect of the intense debate over the nation’s debt limit: that the issue of raising the borrowing limit should be separate from the identification of spending cuts.

Republican leaders in Congress have drawn a hard line that such cuts are essential to any legislative deal to raise the debt ceiling. Republicans in the poll, however, are divided on the issue: 48 percent say any increase in the debt limit should be tied to cuts, while nearly as many, 45 percent, say that the two issues should be isolated, discrete issues.

The general public sides with Obama on this question: 58 percent say cuts should be a separate matter, and 36 percent say they should be knotted with the borrowing limit. Obama also has the trust edge here: 49 percent say they have more confidence in him to handle the issue, compared with 35 percent who put more faith in the GOP.

With a 55 percent approval rating, Obama approaches another four-year stint a shade more well-regarded than his predecessor, George W. Bush, who carried a 52 percent rating into his second term. At this stage 16 years ago, when Bill Clinton prepared to take the oath of office for a second time, 60 percent approved of the way he was doing the job.

All polls are just a snapshot in time, and these attitudes could change.  However, it’s going to take some external stimuli to accomplish that, and so far the GOP seems out of the game on driving a message.  That may play into the strategic decision reached at the retreat this week about linkage/delinkage between the debt ceiling and spending cuts (which I have already suggested, along with Newt Gingrich and others).  If not, then Republicans had better start pushing a strong message soon about why the two should be linked.

They got a little support from a surprising source this week on that point, even if in a backhanded manner.  Fitch Ratings, one of the major bond rating agencies informing Wall Street investors, warned that a failure to achieve both a debt limit increase and significant spending cuts in the near term may result in a credit downgrade for US bonds.  Widely reported as just a warning on the debt ceiling, Fitch also warned on unrealistic spending levels and an inability to address them:

A major credit-rating firm warned it could downgrade the U.S. if lawmakers prioritize debt payments over other government obligations such as Social Security, or fail to tackle the nation’s growing debt burden in the ongoing budget negotiations.

Fitch Ratings, one of the ratings firms that are closely watching the U.S. inch closer to its borrowing limit, unveiled two potential routes to a downgrade Tuesday, laying out their analysis more specifically than in prior reports. …

Fitch said Tuesday that it may downgrade the nation’s debt even if lawmakers raise the debt ceiling, if Washington emerges from those negotiations without taking steps to lighten the U.S. debt load.

Fitch also poured cold water on “prioritization” as a strategy to use a credit limit to force Treasury to pay debt holders first at the expense of other obligations:

Also inconsistent with a triple-A rating, Mr. Riley said, is if lawmakers staring down the debt ceiling limit choose to make debt payments while skipping out—even temporarily—on Social Security payments or other government obligations.

“Living hand to mouth based on robbing Peter to pay Paul…that’s not what we associate with a triple-A rated government,” Mr. Riley said. A downgrade triggered by missed Social Security payments could be less severe than a rating cut following a missed bond payment, he added.

You know what else people associate with AAA-rated governments? Actual budgets. Earlier this week, the editors at Bloomberg exhorted Congress to bolster confidence in the US economy by returning to the normal process of budgeting, even if they somehow missed that point in their own argument:

So here’s another way to end the fight: Tie spending decisions to automatic increases in the debt limit. The premise is simple — when Congress passes a budget resolution or spending bill, it should also authorize a concurrent increase in the statutory debt limit to pay for what it’s authorizing. This would have the added benefit of fostering fiscal restraint by linking spending decisions to the Congress that authorizes the money. If that local airport runway (or, as the case may be, “Bridge to Nowhere”) is in the budget, then the Treasury Department can raise the debt limit to pay for it. No additional congressional action would be necessary.

It sounds absurdly unrealistic — no Congress, especially this one, would ever agree to such a plan. Except that it has: Such a rule has been in place since 1979. The Gephardt rule (named for its chief proponent, former Democratic House Majority Leader Richard Gephardt) was intended to avoid the exact scenario that’s occurring today, and it has worked: Of the 20 joint budget resolutions originated by the House under the Gephardt rule, 15 were enacted into law,according to the Congressional Research Service.

Unfortunately, the rule is not mandatory; each Congress can decide whether to follow it. And House Republicans have repeatedly decided not to, including in 2011, forcing a separate vote to raise the debt limit. That vote, once viewed as routine, has now repeatedly paralyzed the U.S. and threatened to derail the economy.

Well, why did that happen starting in 2011?  Because Senate Democrats haven’t passed a normal budget resolution since April 2009, that’s why.  Republicans would have no trouble linking debt limits to budget resolutions, if they could only get Senate Democrats to produce one.  It’s been well over 1,350 days since the House has seen one from the Senate, even though the Republican-controlled House passed one every year, as required by law.  Issues like tax rates, spending levels, and the debt ceiling would get resolved in conference committees — but that would require Democrats to go on record for a normal level of federal spending, rather than use continuing resolutions to sustain the inflated FY2009 levels of the financial crisis as the baseline.

That’s why the expiration of the current continuing resolution on March 27th provides Republicans with the highest ground on which to find for spending cuts.  It specifically attacks the real problems — spending and a lack of normal order — while shrugging off the debt ceiling as a symptom.  But that will also take some significant messaging by Republicans in order to shape the political battlefield, and this poll shows that the GOP has a long way to go on even that score.