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Poll: Blame for possible government shutdown is divided

By Jon Cohen and Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, March 1, 2011; 12:24 AM

Americans are divided over who would be to blame for a potential government shutdown, with large numbers saying Republicans and President Obama are playing politics with the issue, according to a new Washington Post poll.

Thirty-six percent say Republicans would be at fault if the two sides cannot reach a budget deal in time to avert a temporary stoppage of government services, and just about as many, 35 percent, say primary responsibility would rest with the Obama administration. Nearly one in five say the two camps would be equally culpable.

Obama and congressional leaders are on the verge of passing an interim spending bill to keep federal agencies open through March 18, giving themselves an extra two weeks to try to craft a longer-term bill that would fund the government for the remainder of fiscal 2011. The poll results suggest that neither side would likely have much to gain politically in the near term from allowing the government to close.

The new numbers contrast with a Post-ABC poll taken just before the brief November 1995 shutdown, which was followed by a three-week closure of many agencies. There are similarities between then and now: In both cases, a new Republican-led Congress clashed with a Democratic president who was in the second half of his first term.

But in 1995, when Bill Clinton was president, 46 percent said they would blame House Speaker Newt Gingrich and congressional Republicans for the impending stoppage, compared with 27 percent who said Clinton would be at fault.

If there is a government shutdown, the decisive group to watch would be independent voters, who form the bulk of those who said they had not decided who would be to blame. On the question of blame, conducted jointly by The Post and the Pew Research Center, about three-quarters of conservative Republicans fault Obama; a similar proportion of liberal Democrats blame the GOP. Independents tilt marginally toward blaming Obama, 37 to 32 percent.

The chances of a shutdown later this week are waningas Democrats have increasingly embraced the House Republican proposal of providing two weeks of funding at current levels in exchange for $4 billion worth of budget cuts.

White House press secretary Jay Carney said Monday the administration was "pleased" with progress on Capitol Hill toward the stopgap measure, but warned against the prospect of keeping the government open for business by continuing to pass short-term funding resolutions through the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30.

"If we keep returning to this process every couple of weeks, that will be bad for the economy because of the uncertainty it creates," Carney said in a briefing with reporters.

House Republicans expect to approve the interim measure Tuesday, sending it to the Senate for likely passage before the Friday deadline to keep the government functioning through the weekend and beyond. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) called it "really good news" that Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) has signaled his support for the $4 billion in cuts. But Cantor talked tough on the longer-term negotiation involving the rest of 2011 funding, saying that House Republicans still stood behind their legislation that would cut $61 billion in federal agency funding, to return to 2008 spending levels.

"We are where we are, we're at '08 levels," Cantor said, suggesting Reid needs to make the next move.

Democrats pointed to a new report Monday from Mark Zandi, chief economist of Moody's Analytics, which found that the Republican plan would cost 700,000 jobs through 2012, giving fresh ammunition to Democrats seeking to block the proposed GOP cuts. Zandi's report comes after a similar analysis last week by the investment bank Goldman Sachs, which predicted the cuts would do even greater damage to the economy.

Republicans have dismissed both reports as flawed. They cited Stanford University economist John B. Taylor, who argued that the macroeconomic models employed by Zandi and many other independent forecasters - including the Congressional Budget Office - overstate the economic impact of government spending.

If the interim spending plan is signed into law by Friday, as expected, that puts the next potential showdown in mid-March. According to the Post poll, Obama does have some advantages over Republicans.

Like Clinton did in 1995, Obama has an edge over the GOP when it comes to public assessments about whether each side is making a real effort to keep the government open. A third of all Americans say Republicans are trying to resolve the budget battle. For Obama, that number is 10 percentage points higher. Still, 50 percent say the president is just playing politics; 59 percent say so of the GOP.

Democrats and Republicans alike overwhelmingly see the other side as not working to resolve the budget impasse. Among independents, 63 percent say the Republicans are politicking the issue, and a similarly large percentage, 61 percent, say the same about Obama.

The telephone poll was conducted Feb. 24 to 27 among a random national sample of 1,009 adults. The margin of sampling error is plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.

kanep@washpost.com

Perry Bacon Jr., Lori Montgomery, Felicia Sonmez and Peyton Craighill contributed to this report.

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