Time to do their duty

We knew this would happen.

With the clock ticking, Americans followed Congress’s lead, finally tuning in to the debt debate — and new polls show a plurality are prepared to swallow some medicine and raise the debt ceiling to avert default. As Republicans close ranks around conservatives in a standoff against new taxes, the polls find that President Obama outperforms them not only on the willingness to compromise and the dangers of default, but on the issue of tax increases. Even more notable is that swing voters are souring on the Tea Party brew.

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The NBC/Wall Street Journal and the ABC News/Washington Post polls were released just as the House passed the “cut, cap and balance bill,” which is going nowhere, and the Gang of Six plan burst from behind closed doors with enthusiastic support from a bipartisan group of senators, including the third-ranking GOP leader, Lamar Alexander (Tenn.). The irony of the timing — the House voting on a gimmick while the stock markets rally to news that conservative Senate Republicans praised a plan to raise new taxes, and polls showed the GOP hard line further detached from public opinion — is not lost on House Speaker John Boehner (Ohio) as he and other GOP leaders scramble for a debt endgame they can live with.

Obama relished the moment, and rubbed it in, claiming that a bipartisan group of senators is prepared to move toward a “tough package that includes modifications to Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid,” as well as new revenues, that he is willing to sign. 

Despite the challenge of moving negotiations to legislation to law to avoid default, the shift in public opinion — after months of large majorities opposing any debt increase — is dramatic. The ABC/Post poll found 58 percent of Republicans say GOP leaders aren’t doing enough to get a deal, up 16 points from March. While nearly 60 percent of respondents said Obama isn’t compromising enough, 79 percent said Republicans aren’t working toward a deal. Among conservative Republicans and “strong” Tea Party supporters, 50 percent say GOP leaders are unwilling to strike a deal. The NBC/Journal poll found 58 percent of respondents — including 88 percent of Democrats and 55 percent of independent voters — favored Obama’s “balanced” approach of cuts with taxes. That survey also found 49 percent supporting a debt-ceiling increase, including 66 percent of Democrats, 50 percent of independents and 50 percent of non-Tea Party Republicans.

Minus ardent Tea Partiers, the polls show most voters wouldn’t punish Republicans for raising taxes. Peter Hart, one of the pollsters who conducted the NBC/Journal survey, said the long-term damage to Republicans who support new taxes “doesn’t come close” to the political damage Democrats invite by agreeing to entitlement cuts, something Obama has done — however vaguely — for the first time. And the ABC/Post poll echoes those findings: Half of the Democrats responding said Obama was too willing to compromise.

So Americans want a balanced deal before Aug. 2, with deficit reduction, something for which they hear the president repeatedly advocating. Republicans can come to the table to try to claim success or risk further political damage with voters in the volatile middle who, at least currently, are off the Tea Party wagon. After being elected Speaker in January, Boehner said, “If we brace ourselves to do our duty, and to do what we say we are going to do, there is no telling what together we can accomplish for the good of this great and honorable nation.”

Republicans have done what they said they would do, but have they braced themselves to do their duty?

Stoddard is an associate editor of The Hill.