By ALAN FRAM and JENNIFER AGIESTA

WASHINGTON (AP) — Most Americans think jarring economic problems will erupt if lawmakers fail to increase the government’s borrowing limit. Yet they’re torn over how or even whether to raise it, leaning toward Republican demands that any boost be accompanied by spending cuts.

According to an Associated Press-GfK poll, 53 percent say that if the debt limit is not extended and the U.S. defaults, the country will face a major economic crisis. An additional 27 percent say such a crisis would be somewhat likely, while just 17 percent largely dismiss the prospects of such damage.

Separately, Republican officials said Wednesday that GOP lawmakers may seek a short-term extension of the debt limit, thus avoiding a default as early as next month by the U.S. Treasury while they try to negotiate spending cuts with President Barack Obama over the next few months. “All options are on the table as far as we’re concerned,” Rep. Paul Ryan said at a House Republicans’ retreat near Williamsburg, Va.

The poll’s findings echo many economists’ warnings that failure to raise the debt ceiling and the resulting, unprecedented federal default would risk wounding the world economy because many interest rates are pegged to the trustworthiness of the U.S. to pay its debts. Obama and many Republicans agree with that, though some GOP lawmakers eager to force Obama to accept spending cuts have downplayed a default’s impact.

When asked which political path to follow, 39 percent of poll respondents support the insistence by House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., that deep spending cuts be attached to any measure increasing the debt ceiling. That’s more than the 30 percent who back Obama’s demand that borrowing authority be raised quickly and not entwined with a bitter fight over trimming the budget.

An additional 21 percent oppose boosting the debt ceiling at all.

The survey was conducted as the two parties gird for a debt-limit battle that is likely to dominate the next two months in the capital. The fight is sure to underscore partisan differences over how to curb federal deficits that have surpassed $1 trillion for four straight years. Obama insists that besides spending cuts there should be more tax increases on the wealthy, which the GOP opposes.

While saying he will refuse to negotiate on the debt ceiling, Obama has said he will bargain separately on finding ways to reduce the annual federal deficit.

Despite the majority in the survey who fear severe economic problems if the debt limit is not raised, in a separate question only about 3 in 10 supported the general idea of increasing the ceiling. Four in 10 opposed it, with the rest expressing neutral feelings.

Democrats were about twice as likely as Republicans to support boosting the borrowing limit, while Republicans were likelier than Democrats by a similar margin to oppose an increase.

The government reached its $16.4 trillion borrowing limit Dec. 31 but has avoided default by using cash from pension and other funds it administers, money that will eventually be replaced. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner has said his ability to use such bookkeeping measures will be exhausted by early March or sooner.

Wayne Wiedrich, 46, an engineering inspector in Williston, N.D., said in a poll follow-up interview that he agrees that failure to boost the debt ceiling would risk severe problems.

“But on the other hand, it’s not doing the economy any good to raise the debt limit, print money and spend money we don’t have. One of these days China will come knocking on our door and say, ‘We own you,’” he said, referring to the country that holds more U.S. debt than any other nation.

Homemaker Sherry Giordano, 59, of Feasterville, Pa., disagreed.

“It has to be done,” she said of raising the borrowing limit. “We shouldn’t risk our reputation or spend money and time arguing about it. We have to pay our debts.”

The survey showed slight shifts in concerns about the economy and federal budget deficits. Eighty-six percent consider the economy a top issue, down 5 percentage points from last summer, while 76 percent have the same view on federal deficits, up 7 points since then.

Around one-third expect the economy to worsen over the next year, the highest figure in AP-GfK polling in nearly two years. Less than 1 in 4 think the economy is in good shape, a fairly stable number since last summer.

Despite the slight edge people give the GOP’s debt limit path, the survey showed Obama with some advantages as he begins his second term.

Fifty-four percent approve of how he is handling his job, a figure that has changed little over the past year. That is more than triple Congress’ 17 percent approval rating, which edged down 6 percentage points since early December, before the two sides’ “fiscal cliff” fight ended with Republicans largely accepting Obama’s demands to raise taxes on the country’s highest earners.

Democrats also have a slight 41 percent to 36 percent advantage over Republicans as the party more trusted to handle the economy.

Both Obama and Congress have fallen in the public’s esteem after their last battle over the debt ceiling.

In AP-GfK polling in June 2011, the president held a 52 percent approval rating. By August, it had declined to 46 percent after down-to-the-wire negotiations with Congress. Congressional approval ratings fell even further, from an already weak 21 percent in June to just 12 percent after the year’s debt limit standoff finally ended.

When it comes to finding savings to balance the budget, nearly half prefer cutting government services as the GOP wants, 3 in 10 would rather increase taxes and about 1 in 10 would do both. The percentage backing cuts in federal services has dropped 13 percentage points since the spring of 2011, while the number supporting tax cuts has changed little.

The poll also highlighted how public support dwindles when people are asked about specific cuts.

Given four ideas for reducing budget deficits, only one got majority support: charging top earners higher Medicare premiums, backed by 60 percent. That included roughly even proportions of Democrats and Republicans, and majorities of all income groups in the poll.

Only 30 percent back slowing the growth of annual Social Security benefit increases, which Obama agreed to accept in failed talks with Boehner on crafting a deficit-reduction compromise during the “fiscal cliff” fight. Just 35 percent support gradually raising the current Medicare eligibility age of 65, and 41 percent support defense cuts.

The poll involved landline and cellphone interviews with 1,004 randomly chosen adults and had a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 4 percentage points. It was conducted from Jan. 10 to 14 by GfK Roper Public Affairs and Corporate Communications.

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AP news survey specialist Dennis Junius contributed to this report.

Online: http://www.ap-gfkpoll.com

How the AP-GfK poll on debt limit and politics was conducted

By The Associated Press

The Associated Press-GfK poll on the debt limit and politics was conducted by GfK Roper Public Affairs & Corporate Communications from Jan. 10-14. It is based on landline telephone and cellphone interviews with a nationally representative random sample of 1,004 adults. Interviews were conducted with 604 respondents on landline telephones and 400 on cellular telephones.

Digits in the phone numbers dialed were generated randomly to reach households with unlisted and listed landline and cellphone numbers.

Interviews were conducted in both English and Spanish.

As is done routinely in surveys, results were weighted, or adjusted, to ensure that responses accurately reflect the population’s makeup by factors such as age, sex, education and race. In addition, the weighting took into account patterns of phone use — landline only, cell only and both types — by region.

No more than 1 time in 20 should chance variations in the sample cause the results to vary by more than plus or minus 4 percentage points from the answers that would be obtained if all adults in the U.S. were polled.

There are other sources of potential error in polls, including the wording and order of questions.

The questions and results are available at http://www.ap-gfkpoll.com.

 

Topline results are available at http://www.ap-gfkpoll.com and http://surveys.ap.org.

 

Kayla Mueller’s brother: Swap with Taliban raised IS demands

PRESCOTT, Ariz. (AP) — The brother of an American woman who was killed after spending months as a hostage of Islamic State militants says Kayla Mueller’s situation worsened after the government traded five Taliban commanders for a captive U.S. soldier.

The militants increased their demands after the May swap for Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, Eric Mueller told NBC’s “Today” in an interview that aired Monday.

“That made the whole situation worse because that’s when the demands got greater,” he said. “They got larger. They realized that they had something.”

Mueller’s death was confirmed Feb. 10 by her family and U.S. officials. The Islamic State group claimed she died in a Jordanian airstrike, but U.S. officials have not confirmed that. The Pentagon said it didn’t know how she was killed.

The 26-year-old international aid worker, who grew up in Prescott, Arizona, was captured in August 2013 after leaving a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Aleppo, Syria.

Mueller’s brother and parents spoke to “Today” host Savannah Guthrie. The family has declined repeated requests for an interview with The Associated Press.

Mueller’s father, Carl Mueller, said that the United States’ willingness to swap for Bergdahl but not pay ransom or allow ransom to be paid for his daughter “was pretty hard to take.”

“I actually asked the president that question when we were in the White House,” he said without elaborating.

Mueller’s parents said in the interview that the U.S. government put policy ahead of American lives.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Monday that the Mueller family had been put in a difficult position by the U.S. policy against making concessions to terrorists, but he defended it as being in the best interests of the nation.

“The president is confident that his administration did do everything that was possible within the confines of that policy — using our military might, using our intelligence capability, using our diplomatic influence — to try to secure the safe release and return of Kayla Mueller,” Earnest said.

A recent Associated Press-GfK poll found that only 3 in 10 Americans think the United States should pay a ransom to save an American hostage overseas, even if it’s the only way to rescue the hostage. A quarter of Americans say there are circumstances when the United States should directly negotiate with a terrorist group.

The poll of 1,045 adults was conducted online Jan. 29-Feb. 2. The margin of sampling error for all respondents is plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.

The Obama administration has defended the Bergdahl swap. Some U.S. lawmakers were outraged by the exchange of five Taliban commanders held at the Guantanamo Bay prison for the Idaho native who left his post in Afghanistan and was captured and held by the Taliban for five years.

The Joint Chiefs of Staff unanimously supported the exchange, insisting that the United States has a sacred commitment to men and women who serve that it never will leave anyone behind on the battlefield.


AP-GfK Poll: Most back Obama plan to raise investment taxes

WASHINGTON (AP) — The rich aren’t taxed enough and the middle class is taxed too much. As for your taxes, you probably think they’re too high as well.

Those are the results of an Associated Press-GfK poll that found that most people in the United States support President Barack Obama’s proposal to raise investment taxes on high-income families.

The findings echo the populist messages of two liberal senators — Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Bernie Sanders of Vermont — being courted by the progressive wing of the Democratic Party to run for president in 2016. The results also add weight to Obama’s new push to raise taxes on the rich and use some of the revenue to lower taxes on the middle class.

Obama calls his approach “middle-class economics.”

It’s not flying with Republicans in Congress, who oppose higher taxes.

But Bob Montgomery of Martinsville, Virginia, said people with higher incomes should pay more.

“I think the more you make the more taxes you should pay,” said Montgomery, who is retired after working 40 years at an auto dealership. “I can’t see where a man makes $50,000 a year pays as much taxes as somebody that makes $300,000 a year.”

According to the poll, 68 percent of those questioned said wealthy households pay too little in federal taxes; only 11 percent said the wealthy pay too much.

Also, 60 percent said middle-class households pay too much in federal taxes, while 7 percent said they paid too little.

Obama laid out a series of tax proposals as part of his 2016 budget released this month. Few are likely to win approval in the Republican-controlled Congress. But if fellow Democrats were to embrace his ideas, they could play a role in the 2016 race.

One proposal would increase capital gains taxes on households making more than $500,000. In the survey, 56 percent favored the proposal, while only 16 percent opposed it.

Democrats, at 71 percent, were the most likely to support raising taxes on capital gains. Among Republicans and independents, 46 percent supported it.

Obama’s other tax plans didn’t fare as well.

About 27 percent said they favored making estates pay capital gains taxes on assets when they are inherited, and 36 percent opposed it.

Just 19 percent said they supported the president’s aborted plan to scale back the tax benefits of popular college savings plans, 529 accounts, named after a section in federal tax law. Obama withdrew the proposal after Republicans and some Democrats in Congress opposed it.

“I think that’s a poor idea,” said Jamie Starr of suburban Atlanta. “Being that I’m a mother of five children, that is a wonderful program.”

“That’s kids trying to make their own away in this world without having student loans,” she said.

Obama’s proposal to levy a new tax on banks was supported by 47 percent of those surveyed. Only 13 percent opposed it, while 36 percent were undecided.

It’s tax season, that time of the year when people are confronted by their obligations to the government. The poll found that 56 percent of us think our own federal taxes are too high, and 4 percent said they pay too little.

If taxes are increased, a slight majority said the additional money should help pay down the national debt. Using the money to cut other taxes or fund government programs were less popular options.

Republicans, in general, are more likely than Democrats to oppose higher taxes, except when it comes to low-income families.

Only 19 percent of respondents said low-income families pay too little in federal taxes, but there was a significant split between the political parties. Just 10 percent of Democrats said low-income families pay too little, while 33 percent of Republicans said they don’t pay enough.

According to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, the poorest 20 percent of households paid less than 1 percent of all federal taxes in 2011, the latest year for data. The top 10 percent paid more than half of all federal taxes.

That’s OK, said Sen. Sanders, an independent from Vermont, because wealthy people have seen their incomes soar while the rest of the country’s wages have been much more flat.

“Most people understand that at a time when the rich are becoming much richer, the middle class is continuing to disappear,” Sanders said. “And people also understand that the very wealthy and large corporations are able to take advantage of huge loopholes, which enable them not to pay their fair share of taxes.”

Obama has been pushing to raise taxes on the rich since his first campaign for president in 2008. He has had some success. In January 2013, Obama persuaded Republicans in Congress to let income tax rates go up for families making more than $450,000 a year. It was part of a deal that made permanent a large package of tax cuts first enacted under Republican President George W. Bush.

Some liberals are looking for a candidate to push for higher taxes on the rich in the 2016 race. Sanders and Democrat Warren would fit the profile, though Warren says she is not running for president and Sanders says he has not made up his mind.

Among Democrats, Hillary Rodham Clinton is seen as the front-runner for the nomination; she has yet to make her candidacy official.

Clinton hasn’t offered specifics on how she would approach taxes as a candidate. But she offered a glimpse of her views following Obama’s State of the Union Address in January, when she tweeted that Obama “pointed way to an economy that works for all. Now we need to step up & deliver for the middle class. #FairShot #FairShare.”

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The AP-GfK Poll of 1,045 adults was conducted online Jan. 29-Feb. 2, using a sample drawn from GfK’s probability-based KnowledgePanel, which is designed to be representative of the U.S. population. The margin of sampling error for all respondents is plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.

Respondents were first selected randomly using phone or mail survey methods, and later interviewed online. People selected for KnowledgePanel who didn’t otherwise have access to the Internet were provided access at no cost to them.

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Online:

AP-GfK Poll: http://www.ap-gfkpoll.com

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Follow Stephen Ohlemacher on Twitter: http://twitter.com/stephenatap