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Americans want Congress to deal with the debt ceiling. How to do it is complicated

The dome of the U.S. Capitol building is visible in a reflection on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., Jan. 23, 2023.
Andrew Harnik
The dome of the U.S. Capitol building is visible in a reflection on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., Jan. 23, 2023.

American voters lean in favor of raising the debt ceiling, but are divided on how to pay down the national debt, the latest NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist pollfinds.

By a 52%-to-46% margin, registered voters said they support raising the debt ceiling. They divide along party lines with 8 in 10 Democrats in favor and 7 in 10 Republicans opposed. Independents are split.

That represents a big jump in support from 2011, the last time Congress faced a pitched fight over raising the debt ceiling. Only a quarter of voters in a Marist poll supported raising the debt ceiling back then. The country had its credit downgraded as a result of the fight.

"The political brinksmanship of recent months highlights what we see as America's governance and policymaking becoming less stable, less effective, and less predictable than what we previously believed," the credit ratings agency Standard & Poor's wrotein its report then.

But in addition to the political instability over the debt ceiling, S&P also cited the country's long-term inability to control the national debt, which has continued to balloon since then. The debt is now more than $30 trillion, more than double where it was in 2011.


Like members of Congress, Americans are divided on the best approach to reduce that debt.

While 7 in 10 people, including a majority of Republicans, say they want their representatives to compromise to find solutions, there was a sharp split on how people want to see Congress try to close the debt.

Half (50%) said they favored mostly cutting programs and services, but almost as many (46%) said they preferred to see taxes and fees raised. A majority of independents sided with three-quarters of Republicans, who said programs should be cut.

But that doesn't leave much room for agreement — or making up the revenue. Entitlements — Social Security and Medicare — make up more than half of the federal debt, but, as was highlighted at the State of the Union, this Congress has no interest in cutting those programs.

Republican House Speaker Kevin McCarthy has said those cuts are "off the table," though some Republican current and potential presidential candidates have floated the idea of making cuts to the programs.

Republicans are also not in favor of cutting the defense budget, which makes up about half of the country's discretionary spending. Without touching either of those cuts in the pie, there's not enough left in discretionary spending to make government function or make a significant dent in the debt.

A turning tide with younger generations

The percentage saying to raise taxes and fees overall is up 10 points in the last decade. And notably, it's younger Americans who are are the most likely to say they're in favor of raising taxes and fees, according to the NPR poll.

They've jumped by double digits in their support in that time.

Younger adults are also driving support for the minimum wage to be raised to $15 an hour — 7 in 10 members of GenZ and Millennials support raising it, the highest of any age group in the poll.

Overall, two-thirds of respondents said they are in favor of raising the current minimum wage — which sits at only $7.25 an hour and hasn't been raised since 2009 — to $15 an hour.

Other priorities

Funding the war in Ukraine: A plurality — 4 in 10 say funding for the Ukrainians has been about right, but almost half of Republicans now say the U.S. is providing too much support.

The percentage of Republicans against more Ukraine funding has steadily increased over the past year since the war began. This is shaping up to become a real issue not just in Congress but also on the campaign trail, as Trump voters were the group most likely of all tested to say the U.S. is providing too much support.

Investigating the president's son: Another Republican priority is investigating Hunter Biden. Almost 6 in 10 said they support a congressional investigation into his business dealings. So Republicans are very much going to feel they have the wind at their backs in going forward with that issue.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Domenico Montanaro is NPR's senior political editor/correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., his work appears on air and online delivering analysis of the political climate in Washington and campaigns. He also helps edit political coverage.
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