ATLANTA – For Rep. Tim Scott the debt ceiling is not only the top issue voters in his South Carolina district want to talk about these days, it seems to be the only issue.
The office of the freshman Republican has been logging dozens of calls and emails every day about the debt ceiling, and it's the No. 1 topic of discussion at town hall-style meetings with voters.
"Tons of phone calls, lots of emails, and the closer we get to Aug. 2, the more we're hearing," Scott said.
With the deadline looming to raise the $14.3 trillion debt ceiling, voters are tuning in, worried by the prospect of a financial meltdown if the nation defaults and concerned that elected officials in Washington are playing politics with an issue that could have far-reaching consequences.
In its simplest form, the debt ceiling fight crystallizes party orthodoxy: Republicans staking out a hard line against raising taxes and Democrats standing firm against deep cuts to government services.
President Barack Obama supports a blend of spending cuts and tax increases, a position that has backing of 69 percent of Americans, according to a recent Gallup poll. And among those who aren't wed to an entrenched party view, pragmatism seems to be gaining traction over ideology.
A poll from the Pew Research Center found that among independent voters — coveted by both political parties — concern has shifted from fear that raising the debt ceiling would increase government spending to worry about the impact of the failure to raise the debt ceiling,
Two months ago Pew found that independents, by 49 percent to 34 percent margin, were more concerned that raising the debt ceiling would lead to higher government spending, as opposed to chiefly fearing the harmful effects of keeping the ceiling unchanged. This month, independents split evenly on the question.
"It's going to be calamitous if we don't raise our debt ceiling," worried Ralph Leezenbaum of Mount Kisco, N.Y., who said he thought it would be raised in the end.
Among some voters, there is suspicion that the talks in Washington are infused with the politics of the 2012 election.
"I'm probably most frustrated for all the talk of bipartisanship," said 60-year-old Mary Larson of Palatine, Ill. "It's not happening. I don't see compromise right now."
A San Francisco resident, Brian Fuller, said he believes that the debt ceiling should be raised given the country's fragile economic health, but he also worries about the growth of government.
"We need to use this time to evolve government so that it's not quite so huge," said Fuller, 50. "How we do that and not hurt the truly unfortunate is a very difficult question."
Still, some lawmakers say they are hearing the most from their party's base, those who hold entrenched positions and urge their representatives not to yield. And that could cause lawmakers to dig in their heels.
"Don't bend, stay the course, stand firm," Rep. Tom Price said in summing up the feedback from constituents in his heavily Republican district north of Atlanta. Price said calls and emails are running about 50-1 urging him not to increase taxes as part of any compromise, and he compared to the level and intensity of the feedback to the debate over health care reform.
One such partisan is Joe McCutchen of Ellijay, Ga., who says if the GOP backs tax increases it will be "the kiss of death" going into the 2012 elections. McCutchen argues that Washington can find the needed money by attacking government waste.
"We've got to seize this moment," he said.
But Rep. John Lewis, an Atlanta Democrat, said he's also hearing from constituents, and it's a completely different message.
"They are telling me protect Medicare, protect Social Security, protect those that are less fortunate," Lewis said.
"People are paying very close attention," said Lewis, calling the issue the talk of a gathering he had attended Saturday night.
For Cindy Kramer of Ithaca, N.Y., the biggest worry is that a deal will severely cut social programs. She thinks a budget should "tax the billionaires" and reduce defense spending.
Constituent pressure will likely be felt the most in so-called swing districts
Conservative "Blue Dog" Democrats in particular seem to be walking a careful line. Many have said they will not back an increase in the debt ceiling without significant spending cuts to justify it.
Scott, the freshman Republican from South Carolina and a tea party favorite, said his constituents are pragmatic.
The loudest voices at town hall meetings are the ones who want him to pledge he won't vote to raise the debt ceiling under any circumstances, he said. But he allowed that a clear majority of calls and emails say the ceiling should be raised if necessary.
"But they tell me, 'You better get something important to justify doing it,'" Scott said.
Associated Press writers Tom Breen in Raleigh, N.C., Barbara Rodriguez in Chicago and Kevin Begos in Pittsburgh contributed to this report.
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