Government shutdown opposed by Americans in poll faulting cuts

By Julie Hirschfeld Davis and Heidi Przybyla
(c) 2011 Bloomberg News
Wednesday, March 9, 2011; 12:20 AM

Americans are sending a message to congressional Republicans: Don't shut down the federal government or slash spending on popular programs.

Almost 8 in 10 people say Republicans and Democrats should reach a compromise on a plan to reduce the federal budget deficit to keep the government running, a Bloomberg National Poll shows. At the same time, lopsided margins oppose cuts to Medicare, education, environmental protection, medical research and community-renewal programs.

While Americans say it's important to improve the government's fiscal situation, among the few deficit-reducing moves they back are cutting foreign aid, pulling U.S. troops out of Afghanistan and Iraq, and repealing the Bush-era tax cuts for households earning more than $250,000 a year.

The results of the March 4-7 poll underscore the hazards confronting Republicans, as well as President Barack Obama and Democrats, as they face a showdown over funding the government and seek a broader deficit-reduction plan.

"Americans do not have a realistic picture of the budget," says J. Ann Selzer, the Des Moines, Iowa-based pollster who conducted the survey. "We all know people who are in debt yet cannot for the life of them figure out where the money goes."

Overall, public concern about the deficit -- which is projected to reach $1.6 trillion this year -- is growing, although it's still eclipsed by employment, with poll respondents ranking job creation as a higher priority.

More than seven in 10 respondents say slashing foreign aid and pulling troops out of Iraq and Afghanistan would result in substantial savings, and large majorities back such moves. Yet foreign aid accounts for about 1 percent of federal spending, and the Pentagon requested $159 billion for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan this year, less than 5 percent of Obama's $3.83 trillion federal budget.

Fewer than half of respondents say cutting Medicare benefits or raising the age at which Americans receive Social Security retirement benefits would have a large impact on the deficit, and only 2 in 10 favor cutting Medicare benefits. Such entitlements account for about 40 percent of the budget and are the main drivers of the long-term deficit.

"Those people need those benefits," says Will Moore, 36- year-old electrician from Dallas, Georgia, in a follow-up interview. Congress instead should eliminate "useless government programs and cut taxes and put money back in people's pockets to stimulate spending," says Moore.

When given five choices for the most important issue facing the nation, unemployment and jobs ranked first with 43 percent - - down from 50 percent in Bloomberg's December 2010 poll -- with the deficit and spending cited by 29 percent, up from 25 percent. Health care was chosen by 12 percent, the war in Afghanistan by 7 percent, and immigration by 3 percent.

Asked to choose between jobs and the deficit, 56 percent called creating jobs the government's more important priority now, while 42 percent said cutting spending was.

Obama and congressional leaders have until March 18 to break an impasse over funding the government through the end of the 2011 fiscal year or risk a shutdown. The Republican-led House last month passed a $1.2 trillion budget that includes $61 billion in cuts. Obama and Democrats call the reductions excessive and propose cutting a total of about $10 billion. The debate is only over the current budget and doesn't include long- term issues about the debt, including entitlements.

To be sure, the poll holds cautionary notes and signs of opportunities for both parties in the budget battle. It shows the public doesn't support the Republicans' deep cuts to social and scientific programs. Solid majorities reject significant reductions in community programs that serve lower-income Americans, medical and scientific research, education programs and the Environmental Protection Agency. Fifty percent oppose significant cuts to public television and radio, compared with 46 percent who are in favor of that.

Still, the results indicate the public embraces the Republican argument that spending cuts will improve the economy and create jobs and doesn't agree with Obama's plan to invest in such areas as infrastructure to jumpstart a recovery.

Fifty-three percent say the drive to cut spending and taxes would improve the economy, while 44 percent say spending money on high-speed rail, expanding access to broadband Internet and developing new sources of alternative energy, as Obama proposes, would lay the groundwork for growth.

The poll also found that 61 percent say it's possible to bring down the deficit substantially without raising taxes, while 37 percent said it isn't possible.

While large majorities of both Democrats and Republicans want to avoid a government shutdown, that feeling is stronger among Democrats: Only 6 percent of Democrats say the issue of spending cuts is important enough to warrant a shutdown, compared with 92 percent who said they want to avoid that; 29 percent of Republicans say deep reductions need to be made even if it means closing down the government for a time, while 69 percent say that should be avoided. Just over 7 of 10 independents say they want compromise.

Overall, 77 percent say while cuts need to be made, an accord should be reached to avert a shutdown, compared with 20 percent who say a shutdown would be tolerable.

"I don't think that allowing the government to shut down is acceptable," says Suzanne Ray, a 67-year-old retired state employee from Richmond, Virginia, who describes herself as an independent. "We have elected people who should be able to reach reasonable decisions instead of acting like a bunch of spoiled children."

While the broad majority that wants compromise on the budget may signal peril for Republicans, 45 percent say the party would benefit more than Democrats from a shutdown for having taken a strong stand against spending; 34 percent say Democrats would gain.

People are reluctant to touch Medicare, with more than three-quarters opposing any reduction in benefits to the insurance program for the elderly. Fifty-one percent say that would make little difference to the federal deficit, compared with 44 percent who say it would have a big impact.

Respondents split over whether gradually raising the age of eligibility for retirement for Social Security to 69 would produce at least modest savings: 47 percent say it would produce very or fairly large savings, compared with 48 percent who say it would have little impact.

The public may be opening up to the idea of raising the eligibility requirement for Social Security. From December, there was a 7-point increase in the percentage of Americans who support raising the retirement age, to 44 percent. While just 22 percent say Medicare benefits should be reduced, that's a 7- point jump from three months ago.

And 40 percent say Medicare should be replaced with a system in which government vouchers would help participants pay for their own health insurance.

"Something has to be done," says Stanley Stein, a 75- year-old retired X-ray technician from Sahuarita, Arizona, who endorses raising the retirement age and means-testing Social Security benefits. "Otherwise, there'll be nothing for anybody."

There's also a partisan split in public perceptions of the threat posed by the deficit.

Forty-six percent of Republicans and 47 percent of Tea Party supporters call the deficit and government spending the most important issue facing the country, compared with 16 percent of Democrats, for whom jobs ranks first. Almost 7 in 10 Republicans and Tea Party backers say spending is the more important priority over jobs, while 77 percent of Democrats choose job creation over the deficit. Jobs are the higher priority for independents, by a margin of 55 percent to 42 percent -- almost identical to respondents overall.

The poll of 1,001 adults has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.

© 2011