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.

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