What federal spending should be axed? US public has its own ideas.

In recent opinion polls, the US public gives Congress a starting place to look for cuts in federal spending. Energy industries and 'earmarks' top the list, but there's more.

By , Staff writer

As Republicans and Democrats in Washington bargain and bait each other over how to cut federal spending, they're both trying to please a key bystander: the US voting public.

So, what does the public want to see?

Some new surveys of public opinion suggest that American voters are more engaged in the debate, and perhaps readier to embrace tough choices, than they have been in many years.

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That's not to say that cuts in, say, Social Security benefits would go down easily. Americans are even reluctant to embrace many spending cuts that would have little direct impact on their own pocketbooks – like the idea of eliminating public funds for National Public Radio (NPR).

But since the recession, the public has become more concerned about the economic threat posed by chronic federal deficits. Although they share politicians' penchant for wishful thinking, ordinary Americans appear ready to accept at least a degree of shared sacrifice to resolve fiscal problems.

Here's what's on the public "would-cut" list, according to a new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll: subsidies for the oil and gas industries, nuclear power subsidies, "earmarks" by individual lawmakers for special projects, weapons the Defense Department says it doesn't need, and general domestic spending (support for a five-year freeze is strong).

The poll also found support for some curbs in entitlements. Gradually raising the retirement age to 69 (from 67) by 2075 was "acceptable" to 56 percent of Americans, and reducing Medicare and Social Security benefits for wealthier retirees was supported by 62 percent.

And although the idea lacked majority support, 44 percent of Americans in the poll deemed it "acceptable" to gradually transform Medicare into a program in which seniors would get government-issued vouchers to buy private health insurance.

"There is a public view that something has to be done about the federal deficit ... [and that] you can't do it just by taxing the rich and getting rid of fraud and abuse," says Peter Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac Poll, based in Hamden, Conn.

Quinnipiac's latest national poll of voting Americans, released this week, registered that result with dollar signs attached.

It asked if people would still vote for a presidential candidate if he or she "supported solving the nation's deficit problem in a way that would cost you personally $500 or more." Some 66 percent of voters said yes, while only 25 percent said no. The "yes" side appealed to a majority of men, women, blacks, whites, Republicans, Democrats, and independents.

This mood of middle-class sacrifice represents a significant shift that "should not be underplayed," says Mr. Brown. For context, $500 multiplied by the nation's roughly 300 million people would equal $150 billion – not enough to close one year's budget deficit, but not chump change either.

At the same time, Americans haven't settled on exactly how to solve the fiscal challenge. Although polls find support for some specific cuts, they also suggest that it won't be politically easy to bring federal deficits down to a sustainable size.

In the Quinnipiac poll, for example, an overwhelming 90 percent of voters said middle-class Americans will have to make sacrifices, but few favored cuts in entitlement spending. By a margin of 49 to 40 percent, they said no to the idea of scrapping public funds for NPR.

Similarly, in the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, a majority of Americans found it "unacceptable" to cut scientific research, education funding (at all age levels), defense, Planned Parenthood, and even farm subsidies.

And when people were asked in general terms about whether to makes cuts in Medicare, Medicaid, or Social Security, the response was a resounding no. (When pushed to make tough choices, 35 percent of respondents said to "cut important programs," 33 percent said to raise taxes, and 26 percent said to postpone deficit reduction.)

In part, the problem is that elected officials are only now beginning to grapple with the issue themselves – and thus haven't made a big sales pitch to the public.

After focusing first on roughly $100 billion in proposed cuts from this year's discretionary spending, House Speaker John Boehner said this week it's time for Congress to start tackling the runaway cost of entitlement programs like Medicare and Social Security – long considered a politically deadly "third rail" issue.

Mr. Boehner also said, in comments published Friday in The Wall Street Journal, that he expects Republicans and Democrats will be able to agree on a near-term plan for spending (including cuts), to avert a possible government shutdown later this month.

As is perennially true, politicians can pay a price for spending cuts or tax hikes that the public doesn't like. But the opinion surveys suggest that lawmakers could be penalized, next election, if they are perceived as having done nothing on fiscal reform.

Will the two parties agree on some large or small steps of fiscal reform? Boehner and President Obama both say the two sides should talk rather than avoid the issue. Stay tuned.

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