Poll: Federal deficits a top issue, solving the problem complicated

In the poll, 48 percent said the budget deficit is "dangerously out of control and threatens our economic future,” but provided few insights on where to cut spending. 

A majority (53 percent) oppose freezing non-defense discretionary spending, whereas 43 percent favor a freeze. Of those who are against a freeze, 21 percent strongly oppose the idea.  

House Republicans, including newly chosen House Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.), intend to scale back the budget to fiscal 2008 spending levels, meaning cuts of about $100 billion. Discretionary spending, including defense spending, is one-third of the overall budget or about $1 trillion. Defense spending typically represents about 60 percent of that amount, leaving about $500 billion for all other agencies. 

An overwhelming majority, 82 percent, is opposed to reducing Medicare to slash the deficit, 72 percent oppose lowering Medicaid benefits, and 65 percent are against cutting the cost-of-living increases on Social Security. 

"The public’s demand for deficit control, coupled with its unwillingness to make cuts in popular programs, illustrates why legislators are hesitant to make tough budget choices," said David Primo, a budget expert at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University and a political science professor at University of Rochester.

Republicans won 63 House seats on a platform of less government spending and the need to balance the budget. 

Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), the chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, and Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), the incoming chairman of the House Budget Committee, have signaled that they're preparing budgets that would seek cuts to government spending to address the more-than-trillion-dollar deficit.

"This is why creating binding budget rules is so essential,” Primo said. “With real spending limits, the public and politicians would no longer be able to say, ‘Cut the deficit but don’t cut any programs,’ which just doesn’t work. Politicians would be forced to make hard choices, but they would be politically protected by the budget rules. They could tell constituents they don't want to make the cuts but have to abide by the rules.”

A majority (51 percent) did support raising the amount of salary subject to payroll taxes, such as Social Security, beyond the current limit of $107,000. They also supported (70 percent) taxing Wall Street profits with 34 percent strongly backing the policy. 

Respondents also opposed eliminating all tax deductions in favor of lower tax rates (51 percent), cutting subsidies to farmers (61 percent), and adding a 15-cent federal gas tax (74 percent) and decreasing the amount paid to hospitals and doctors who receive Medicare services (67 percent). 

As the tax proposal brokered by President Obama and Senate Republicans begins its journey on Monday through Congress, nearly 60 percent of those polled said they support eliminating tax cuts for the wealthiest taxpayers, with 33 percent strongly supporting. 

Lawmakers expected next week to push through a bill that extends the tax cuts of 2001 and 2003 for two years, including for those in higher income brackets, households making $250,000 and more a year.

President Obama has said all week that while he had the public on his side to end the tax breaks for households making at least $250,000 a year, he couldn't risk the tax cuts expiring for the middle class on Dec. 31. 

Former President Clinton backed Obama's plan after a meeting Friday at the White House, saying Obama worked out the best possible deal.