Worried about the debt ceiling? Republicans aren’t.

October 8, 2013

Treasury Secretary Jack Lew has described Congress as "playing with fire" when it comes to the ongoing debate over whether to raise the debt ceiling. Goldman Sachs warns that not raising the debt limit could result in a "rapid downturn in economic activity if not reversed very quickly." The vast majority of economists use words like "recession" and "catastrophe" to explain the impact of breaching the debt ceiling later this month.


The U.S. Capitol at sunset, seen through a window in Washington on Sunday. EPA/Michael Reynolds

And yet, a majority -- yes, a majority -- of self-identified Republicans in a new Pew Research Center poll agreed with the statement that "the country can go past the deadline for raising the debt limit without major economic problems." Almost two-thirds (64 percent) of Republicans who identify with the tea party expressed that sentiment.

What explains that level of skepticism in the face of such dire warnings?

Some of the Republicans doubt about the true danger of the debt ceiling is based on the fact that, well, lots and lots of people -- Republicans, Democrats and independents -- don't really know what it is or does. (Overall, 47 percent of people said that raising the debt ceiling was "essential" to avoiding an economic crisis while 39 percent said the economy would be okay if the debt limit wasn't increased.) The reflex reaction to warnings about how terrible something you don't really get might be is to assume people are exaggerating about the consequences.

That doubt goes double -- or maybe triple -- when you are a Republican who is already distrustful of what a Democratic administration tells you is fact. And, there are several Republican voices in Congress -- most prominent among them Michigan Rep. Justin Amash -- insisting that the Obama administration is shouting "disaster" when the economic reality is far less catastrophic.

The numbers in the Pew poll may help explain House Speaker John A. Boehner's comments on the debt ceiling in recent days. Late last week, Boehner (R-Ohio) made news by telling Republican members that he would not let the country go into default and that political realities meant a debt deal would have to be attractive enough to win some Democratic support. Days later, however, Boehner told ABC's George Stephanopoulos that there weren't enough votes in the House to pass a "clean" debt-ceiling increase, meaning that Republicans would only be for such a move if it meant concessions from Democrats.

If the Pew numbers explain Boehner's shift, they also make clear the difficulty of his bargaining position and the real possibility of a debt default.

Boehner -- through his actions in the run-up to the government shutdown and his statements since the government went dark -- has shown that he understands that the way he keeps his job is to placate cast-iron conservatives. And he wants to keep his job.

But, how far is he willing to go to do that? If a majority of Republicans don't believe breaching the debt ceiling is such a big deal, how does Boehner make the case to House Republicans of the seriousness of the stakes? And, if he can't make that case and/or wring concessions out of the White House, does he let a default happen?

Fixbits:

Democrats could accept a short-term debt limit increase.

The president dared Boehner to hold a vote on a clean CR.

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) is on the air with an ad that seeks to protect his right flank.

The first Senate campaign ad from Rep. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) goes after Sen. Mark Pryor (D) on Obamacare.

A conservative super PAC targeted Wyoming Senate candidate Liz Cheney (R) on gay marriage.

Republican Milton Wolf, a second cousin of Obama, is expected to move forward with his plan to challenge Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.).

Neurosurgeon Monica Wehby may join the crowded Republican primary for a chance to take on Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.).

The first televised debate between New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) and Democratic challenger Barbara Buono is tonight.

Must-reads: 

"Shutdown shines spotlight on rift in Republican Party" -- Dan Balz, Washington Post

"Democratic cracks open in debt limit fight" -- Manu Raju and John Bresnahan, Politico

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Chris Cillizza · October 7, 2013