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Americans split on who they’d blame if U.S. defaults, Post-ABC poll finds

As the debate over raising the debt ceiling continues, 39 percent say they would blame congressional Republicans, while 36 percent say they would blame President Biden

President Biden walks with House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) as he departs following the annual St. Patrick's Day luncheon on Capitol Hill on March 17 in Washington. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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A Washington Post-ABC News poll finds Americans divided on who they would blame if the nation’s debt ceiling is not raised and the government goes into default, a potentially devastating outcome that could happen as soon as June 1.

The poll finds 39 percent of Americans say they would blame Republicans in Congress if the government goes into default, and 36 percent say they would blame President Biden and 16 percent volunteer that they would blame both equally. (That dynamic is similar to the 2011 debt limit showdown, when 42 percent said they would blame congressional Republicans and 36 percent said they would blame President Obama. Lawmakers averted a default that year.)

Read Post-ABC poll results

Opinions fall sharply along party lines, with Republicans just as likely to blame Biden (78 percent) as Democrats are to blame congressional Republicans (78 percent). A 37 percent plurality of independents say they would blame Republicans, with the remainder divided between Biden (29 percent) and blaming both equally (24 percent).

Due to restrictions on how much the government can borrow and its tendency to spend more than it takes in, the debt limit, or ceiling, has periodically been raised to prevent defaulting on its obligations. Now, it is at the center of a standoff between Republicans, who control the House, and Democrats, who control the White House and the Senate.

The House passed legislation in late April that would raise the debt ceiling while cutting trillions of dollars in federal spending, including Biden’s programs to fight climate change and reduce student debt. Biden and Senate Democrats have said they will not negotiate on raising the debt ceiling, saying that it should be increased without being tied to cuts. During the Trump administration, Republicans raised the debt limit several times without calling for spending cuts.

Debt ceiling showdown: 5 possible outcomes

A 58 percent majority of Americans say the debt limit and federal spending should be handled as separate issues, down from 65 percent who said this in February. A much smaller 26 percent of Americans say Congress should only allow the government to pay its debts if Biden agrees to cut spending, the same share as February.

Most Democrats and independents say the debt limit should be handled separately from federal spending, although the share saying this declined by nine percentage points to 74 percent among Democrats, and by 15 points to 58 percent among independents since February.

Republicans are more divided, with 46 percent saying the debt limit and spending should be handled separately and 40 percent saying the ceiling should be lifted only if Biden agrees to cut spending. In February, 48 percent of Republicans said the debt limit should be tied to spending cuts.

Blame for a possible default varies by age and education. Americans 65 and older are more likely to blame Republicans in Congress if the government goes into default (47 percent) than adults under 40, 35 percent of whom say the same. Americans with college degrees are also more likely to lay blame on Republicans (47 percent) than those without four-year degrees (35 percent).

The Washington Post-ABC News poll was conducted April 28 through May 3, 2023, among a random national sample of 1,006 U.S. adults, with 75 percent reached on cellphones and 25 percent on landlines. Overall results have a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points. Error margins are larger among subgroups.

Scott Clement contributed to this report.

What to know about the U.S. debt ceiling

The latest: The House voted to pass a debt ceiling deal as lawmakers rush to avert a disastrous government default on June 5, sending the bill to the Senate. See how each member voted here. If the debt ceiling isn’t raised by the deadline, here’s what a government default means and the payments at risk. Here are the negotiators who have been working toward a debt ceiling deal.

Understanding the debt ceiling fight: Biden and the House Republican leadership have been on a collision course over the national debt limit. In this comic, see how hitting the debt ceiling could unleash chaos. Here’s when the debt ceiling battle could end.

What is at stake? Invoking the 14th Amendment to dodge the debt limit is risky, White House officials say, although Biden has floated it as an option. If the debt limit is breached, Biden warned that it could send the U.S. economy into a free fall. The debt ceiling breach could wipe out 8 million jobs, a recent analysis found. Amid consumer anxiety over the uncertainty, financial experts warn against making fear-based decisions.