Voters still split on blame for possible shutdown

April 4, 2011

With a potential federal government shutdown closing in, the public remains split down the middle when it comes to which side it would blame for a work stoppage, according to a new Washington Post poll.

In the poll, 37 percent say they would fault the Obama administration for a partial federal shutdown. The same number would blame the Republicans in Congress. Those figures are nearly the same as in late February, despite five weeks of fierce budget negotiations and positioning on the issue.

That leaves President Obama, congressional Democrats and congressional Republicans all on unsteady ground as the Friday deadline draws closer for reaching a compromise to fund the federal government through the remainder of fiscal year 2011. Obama has called four congressional leaders, including House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) and Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), to the White House on Tuesday for a discussion about the pending outline for 2011 spending.

Congressional staff are working on a plan that would set 2011 spending levels $33 billion below last year’s total, although Boehner has publicly said he wants deeper cuts. While that work continues, each side has been preemptively trying to lay the blame for any shutdown, no matter how brief, squarely on the other side. Reid, on CBS’s “Face the Nation,” said Sunday that it would be easy to reach a final deal but for conservative activists who were “dictating” their terms to Boehner.

House Republicans have blamed Reid, saying they approved their own plan to cut $61 billion from federal agency budgets in February and that the Senate never did the same. If there is a shutdown, freshman Rep. Jeff Landry (R-La.) said last Friday, motioning to the Senate behind him, “It is squarely on [Reid’s] back.”

The poll respondents’ even divide is markedly different than where voters stood on the brink of the last round of government shutdowns. In late 1995, President Bill Clinton was battling with then-House speaker Newt Gingrich. Back then, Clinton clearly had the higher political ground, according to polls.

The new poll shows little has also changed, over the past five weeks, in the percentage of Americans who see an honest effort at resolving the budget issue. By 2 to 1, Americans see the GOP as “just playing politics” with the budget issue, rather than really trying to fix the situation. A slim majority continues to doubt Obama’s sincerity.

But underneath those stagnant numbers is growing disillusionment among rank-and-file Republicans. Fully 40 percent of all Republicans now see the Republicans in Congress as simply posturing on the budget, up 13 percentage points from five weeks ago. Republicans are also significantly more apt to see Obama as playing politics (rising from 70 to 81 percent).

Overall, the president’s sincerity numbers remain on par with February’s figures because independents are now more likely to call his efforts sincere ones. On the blame question itself, 35 percent of political independents say they would blame Obama for a shutdown; 34 percent would blame the GOP.

In a Pew Research Center poll released Monday, 53 percent of independents say they would like lawmakers who share their own views to compromise on the budget to avert a shutdown. Most Democrats agree, as do a bare majority of moderate and liberal Republicans. Conservative Republicans, however, tend to disagree: 56 percent of them want like-minded representatives to “stand by principles even if that means the government shuts down.” The no-compromise position spiked higher still among those with an affinity for the tea party political movement.

Another shift since late February in The Post’s data is a small, but significant decline in the percentage of Americans who have heard “a lot” about a potential shutdown (from 37 to 32 percent). That number will likely change should budget talks fail to avert a shutdown. In the most recent Washington Post-ABC News poll, 63 percent of Americans said a partial shutdown would be a “bad thing.”

Paul Kane covers Congress and politics for the Washington Post.
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