Thursday, July 28, 2011

Debt-limit debate wearing on Americans

By William M. Welch, Judy Keen and Rick Jervis, USA TODAY

Washington's latest stalemate has inflamed partisan passions over federal spending, with the threat of an economic calamity in the balance. Yet across the nation, many people see a wearyingly familiar fight — one they simply want to end.

"Just get it done. Work it out," Nicole McBride, 30, says with a touch of disgust as she lunches Tuesday at Al's Beef, a Chicago institution known for its Italian sandwiches.

Her view is widely shared.

At the renowned Café Du Monde just outside the French Quarter in New Orleans, a vacationing Joe Davis blames Democrats and Republicans equally for prolonging a political fight over whether to again raise a federal debt ceiling that has been raised scores of times before, usually without this level of dispute.

"I'm sick of it," says Davis, 73, a retired economist from San Antonio, as he polishes off an order of beignets on an outdoor patio.

"They're playing games. Here we are trying to pull ourselves out of recession, and they can't come to an agreement," Davis says.

As an Aug. 2 deadline draws closer and Washington's political brinkmanship only intensifies, Americans are discussing the potential consequences of failing to raise the debt ceiling, which authorizes the federal government's borrowing to meet expenses that tax collections aren't sufficient to cover.

Patricia Benner, 66, a political independent from Louisville visiting Palm Springs in the California desert, reflects on the political dilemma that has tied the Capitol in knots.

She worries about President Obama's warning that inaction on the debt ceiling could leave the country unable to issue her monthly Social Security check.

However, she wants to see other types of federal spending cut rather than any taxes raised.

"They could settle this today if they really wanted to," she says, expressing disappointment with all sides.

Finger-pointing all around

As Americans enjoy vacations or simply try to carry on in the midsummer heat, the issue has become an unwanted intrusion into daily life.

The president and the Republican speaker of the House, John Boehner of Ohio, both have appealed to the public and accused the other side of refusing to come to a deal.

During his address to the nation Monday night, Obama warned, "We can't allow the American people to become collateral damage to Washington's political warfare."

Not everyone agrees on what that potential damage may be, or whether inaction would trigger an unprecedented federal default with broad and grim economic consequences for the nation.

Jennifer Dillon, 50, of Palm Springs, says she doesn't know what or whom to believe, but she calls talk about reduced Social Security and Medicare benefits "idle threats."

"I don't know if we're even really hearing the truth about what the ramifications would be," she says.

But the prospects are worrisome for many, even as they lament the nation's growing debt burden, which requires that the federal government devote increasing portions of tax collections to make interest payments.

"I think it will be pretty catastrophic," says David Maciewicz, 22, a recent University of Vermont graduate from Utica, N.Y. "It will destroy the economy if they don't raise the debt ceiling.

"We will not be able to reduce the debt in a week," he says. "Raising the debt ceiling needs to be a non-issue. It needs to be done."

Just before the lunchtime crush at the Napoleon House Bar & Café in New Orleans' French Quarter, the staff debates the debt ceiling issue, discussing different deals on the table and how it all may trickle down to them.

Waiter Jordan Angle, 35, says he doesn't blame congressional Republicans or Democrats — he blames the American people.

"We could blame our leaders all we want," he says. "But ultimately it's Americans living beyond their means that ran up so much debt."

Angle says the standoff could lead to a faltering economy and fewer people spending money at his bar.

More likely, he says, is that both sides will strike an agreement eventually. Inactivity from leaders doesn't spook or surprise him.

"Living in New Orleans, we're very used to nothing getting done," Angle says.

Braxton Moody, owner of Rita's Tequila House on Bourbon Street, is concerned about the impasse hurting his business. Just talk of the possibility of the country's credit rating being downgraded is harming the economy, he says.

His biggest fear: banks freezing credit.

"If banks can't loan, I can't grow," Moody, 37, says of his business, which boasts 135 different types of tequila on its menu.

'It's a power play'

In Chicago, McBride and Daryl Herman talk a lot about the debt ceiling crisis that's roiling Washington, and the couple is frustrated with pretty much everyone involved.

"It's a power play. It's about the Republicans showing their muscle and the Democrats showing their muscle," McBride says. Obama, she says, is being too diplomatic.

Herman, 31, a social worker, says regular people who already are having a tough time in this economy shouldn't pay a price.

"It's all about people at the end of the day," he says.

Jim Brown, 67, a semi-retired restaurant worker who with his wife, Linda Brown, 60, splits his time between Chicago and Maine, says he has a personal stake in the outcome of the wrangling.

He depends on his Social Security check and worries that increased taxes on business would affect the Maine restaurant where he works.

"We don't want the country to default by any means," he says. "We want what's coming to us."

"They need to get it done," says Linda Brown, a teacher. "And don't touch Medicare or Social Security!"

Tom Lauer, 51, who works in finance, says, "It's all just politics. I don't think that right now people are making decisions for the right reasons."

Lauer says government spending must be curbed, and he doesn't like the idea of precluding tax increases from the wealthy and corporations.

"You have to find a combination of both," he says.

A stake in the debt debate

Melanie Givens, 36, knows she has a personal stake in the fight. She lost her health care job in 2008 and found a new one recently that pays $40,000 less each year. That experience, she says, convinced her of the importance of paying your bills and staying out of debt.

She's disappointed with the congressional leadership of both parties, especially Republicans, whom she says have been "hijacked" by the no-tax, less-spending Tea Party.

She wishes Obama would "get the American people riled up and continue to call out the Republicans on their hypocrisy. Call their bluff."

In Minnesota, Robert Helland of Sauk Rapids, an optical company owner, says federal spending is out of control.

However, the self-described conservative Republican says the debt ceiling must be raised now, even if only for six months. He wants to cut foreign aid and welfare — although eliminating both programs still wouldn't amount to enough savings to stave off the need for borrowing.

Steve Whipple, who works in St. Cloud, Minn., says the debt ceiling definitely should be raised.

"It's been raised every time in our history that it needed to be raised," says Whipple, who considers himself an independent. He says the debate is the product of "political people trying to make political points instead of trying to govern."

Taylor Mason, 20, a student at University of South Carolina-Beaufort, is spending his summer working for Rep. Michele Bachmann's Republican presidential campaign.

Mason opposes lifting the debt ceiling, thinks that compromise isn't the solution, and wants to see reduced spending on health care for seniors and other benefits programs.

"I don't think the debt ceiling needs to be increased. I just think we need to spend less," Mason says. "Everyone's caught up in this word 'compromise.' There was no compromise in spending this money. … I think we need to cut Medicare and some of the other entitlement programs. People have gotten used to government programs providing for everything."

But in North Carolina, David Wijewickrama, 42, a lawyer and Democrat from Waynesville, says that if the debt ceiling is not raised, "There will be catastrophic, irreparable damage."

"I believe our economy will face irreparable harm," he says. "Unemployment will increase, and I believe investing houses will devalue the U.S. government's commitments."

He calls the debate in Washington "disgusting election politics."

"What we need is an honest discussion," Wijewickrama says. "Both parties are responsible for the debt. Both parties need to take ownership of the debt."

Contributing: Tracy Loew, Statesman Journal, Salem, Ore.; Keith Matheny, The (Palm Springs, Calif.) Desert Sun; Kirsti Marohn, St. Cloud (Minn.) Times; Jon Ostendorff, Asheville (N.C.) Citizen-Times; Natalie DiBlasio; Luke Kerr-Dineen.

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