Who will win the next fight over the debt limit?

Erica Hill talks to CBS News chief Washington correspondent Bob Schieffer about the issues behind the debt ceiling debate.
Debt ceiling debate coming down to the wire

News Analysis

It is often said that whoever determines the terms of a political argument determines the outcome.

That rule was clearly in play Sunday on CBS' "Face the Nation" when a top Republican and a top Democrat sought to frame the upcoming debate over raising the nation's $16.4 trillion borrowing limit.

Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell said that President Obama "needs to become the adult" in the room, arguing that both he and House Speaker John Boehner have already "been the adults in the room arguing that we ought to do something about the nation's most serious long term problem."

Democratic Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia countered that Republicans are poised to again play "debt ceiling roulette" and potentially destroy the economy with their "my-way-or the-highway approach." He added: "I think it's incredibly irresponsible."

According to the Treasury Department, the nation could reach the debt limit in October - shortly before the November election - though the fight could also come in the lame-duck session that follows the election. In a position that has come to be known as the "Boehner rule," Boehner says he will again insist that an increase in how much the nation can borrow be matched by spending cuts equal to the amount of the increase. While he has opposed any tax increases to reduce the deficit and debt, he has said he is open to some revenue increases in the form of removing loopholes and deductions from the tax code.

Which side blinks in the next debt ceiling fight - whether it comes before or after the election - is tied to whose argument most resonates with Americans. Can Democrats compellingly argue that the Boehner Rule puts the fragile economic recovery at risk? Or will Republicans succeed in making the case that the president has failed to do what it takes to deal with the nation's increasingly crippling debt?

From a rhetorical perspective, the advantage would seem to belong to the Democrats. The Republicans' decision to take a firm stand on raising the debt limit - something that had been routine in the past - led the United States to nearly default on its debts last summer, and contributed to a downgrade to the nation's Treasury securities that was a blow to the American psyche. It also meant a cap on discretionary spending and planned automatic cuts in defense and nondefense spending next year, though Republicans are now seeking to reverse the scheduled cuts to military spending.

The problem for Republicans is that Americans care a lot more about the economy than they do reducing the debt and deficit. In an April CBS News/New York Times poll, nearly half said the economy and jobs are the most important problem facing the country today. Just five percent cited the budget deficit.

That wound suggest that Democrats can win the argument if they can successfully point to the last ugly debt ceiling fight to argue that Republicans are putting the economy at risk. Even if Republicans can convince Americans that President Obama is failing to lead on the debt and deficit, it won't provide nearly the same benefit because most Americans don't see it as a pressing issue.

Yet the Republican leadership has little choice but to start another fight over raising the debt limit. Many rank-and-file House Republicans are among that five percent that sees the debt as the issue that outweighs all others; they also know that if they don't take a strong stand on the issue, they expose themselves to Tea Party-backed primary challenges. That leaves Boehner with little choice but to fight the debt limit fight once again - even if it means risking further political damage to a party that saw its standing slide after last year's debt battles.