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Republican lawmakers are lining up behind attaching spending cuts to legislation to raise the debt limit, but an overwhelming majority of Americans say the two issues should be handled separately — including 4 in 10 Republicans.
The lack of public support for insisting on spending cuts to raise the debt limit presents a challenge to Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).
McCarthy in his prebuttal remarks ahead of President Biden’s State of the Union address was careful not to talk about spending “cuts” and only mentioned the C-word to pledge that Republicans would not push for cuts to Medicare and Social Security.
House Republicans have yet to lay out what specific reforms they want to enact in exchange for lifting the nation’s borrowing authority, a notable difference from 12 years ago when then-House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) already had his “Road Map for America’s Future” in hand.
That plan called for freezing nondefense discretionary spending for 10 years, reducing Social Security benefits for future retirees who at the time were 55 and younger and raising the Medicare eligibility age.
While some Republicans remain interested in deep budget cuts, there’s now growing resistance from GOP lawmakers concerned about how that would impact defense funding.
“No, because that would gut defense,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said when asked if he’d accept the spending caps like the ones enacted a decade ago. “If they could control spending, without counting us backward on defense, then count me in.”
That task is easier said than done.
Polling shows a very different political context from when President Obama agreed to spending caps as part of a debt limit deal in 2011.
“The deficit is a lot less of a salient concern to voters and you didn’t see any advertising on it in the last cycle, or a miniscule amount,” said Democratic pollster Celinda Lake, who argued that the debt doesn’t even rank as a top-tier priority for Republican voters.
“You didn’t see candidates beat over it or elected because of it,” she said. “It’s significantly less important to voters.”
But Lake said “what you do about” the deficit “can be a very salient issue.”
“If you cut Social Security, that’s extremely salient and a little-known fact is at the end of 2022, Social Security was emerging as a top issue and a top priority, including about 40 percent of Republicans who said it was a top issue,” she added. “Voters are extremely nervous about the economy … they’re much more sensitive to cuts and how what you do about the deficit may hurt the economy.”
McCarthy on Monday emphasized that Republicans would stay away from Social Security cuts.
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), an adviser to the Senate Republican leadership team, said Republicans have learned from the last debt standoff that Democrats can use proposed spending cuts as political ammunition.
“Unfortunately I think our politics seem to be more characterized by using these [proposals] as a political opportunity to attack opposing points of view rather than to solve problems, and that’s a problem,” he said.
A Washington Post-ABC News poll of 1,003 adults found that 65 percent of Americans think the issues of debt payment and federal spending should be handled separately. Seventy-three percent of independents and 41 percent of Republicans said any debate over spending cuts and fiscal reforms should be handled apart from the debt limit discussion.
By contrast, Republicans felt more emboldened to push for specific spending reforms after the 2010 midterm elections, when they picked up 63 House seats and a big political mandate amid public anger over a recession and spending by Washington in the wake of a new health care bill and stimulus measure.
Even many Democrats such as Sen. Mark Warner (Va.) and then-Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad (N.D.) agreed that deficit reduction should be a top priority.
Obama ultimately agreed to the Budget Control Act that then-Vice President Joe Biden negotiated McConnell within days of a possible federal default. It raised the debt ceiling but put in place spending caps and across-the-board cuts for programs important to both parties.
But Democratic and Republican lawmakers soon chafed under the strict caps and began lifting them almost immediately. Congressional leaders agreed to reduce the amount of proposed cuts in 2012 and then raised defense and nondefense discretionary spending limits in 2013, 2015, 2018 and 2019.
Warner said Tuesday “the debt doom we all predicted” 12 years ago was based on concerns that a huge federal debt would drive up interest rates significantly.
“We have not seen that happen,” he said, although he warned that federal interest payments could become a problem in the years ahead, as the federal debt now stands at nearly $32 trillion and the Federal Reserve plans to continue raising interest rates.
The federal debt stood at $14 trillion in 2011.
McCarthy has dropped some hints about what he wants in deficit reduction talks with the White House.
“A responsible debt limit increase that begins to eliminate wasteful Washington spending and puts us on a path towards a balanced budget is not only the right place to start — it’s the only place to start, my fellow Americans,” McCarthy said in a speech on Monday.
Some House Republicans hope to balance the budget in the next decade, pressing for steep spending cuts to be attached to any debt ceiling bill. Budget watchdog groups and lawmakers in both parties, however, say the chances of balancing the budget in 10 years without steep cuts to defense programs or reforms to Social Security and Medicare are small.
An analysis released by the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget found last month that Congress would need to reduce all spending by roughly 25 percent to do so.
“There are some areas of discretionary you’re going to have to make investments, those are always tough decisions,” Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), who chairs the House Rules Committee, told reporters recently.
“But we can’t just go blindly on the same path that we’re on, which is basically what the administration is recommending,” he said, adding: “I’ll make you a prediction. We’ll spend less money in the next two years than we did the last two years.”