With the clock ticking on Congress to strike a deal to avert the "fiscal cliff," Americans increasingly want to see their leaders compromise to get a deal done — as long as the pain of any compromise leaves them untouched.
Surveys show that the most popular option for dealing with the deficit is to follow President Obama's lead by letting the George W. Bush-era tax cuts expire for families making at least $250,000 a year. The least popular options? Raising taxes across the board or cutting spending on Medicaid and Medicare — programs that touch a broad swath of voters.
"Most Americans don't make $250,000 or more; therefore, it is easy for them to say, 'Sure increase their taxes because it will not affect me personally,'" said Frank M. Newport, editor in chief of Gallup, a polling agency. "When you go to the public and list things that should be cut, it is hard to see what Americans agree on other than taxing the rich. Basically, Americans are not in favor of cutting a lot of things that are the big-ticket things, and that is the conundrum."
Mr. Newport said that an increasing number of poll respondents indicated that they want lawmakers to carve out a deal — even if that means violating their party's principles — and are more likely to blame Republicans if the negotiations fail.
That, Mr. Newport said, is likely one of the reasons Mr. Obama is confident that congressional Republicans eventually will cave on taxes and back off calls for entitlement reform before the end of the year. "The hierarchy is Obama on top, then Democrats and then Republicans," Mr. Newport said.
Whatever the case, the polls have helped shape the contours of the debate in Washington — even though they have done little to bridge the gaps.
House Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, continued to trade jabs publicly over the expiring tax cuts from 2001 and 2003 and the looming $110 billion in defense and domestic spending cuts that were set into motion by the deal lawmakers reached last year to raise the nation's borrowing limit.
Speaking for the first time since sitting down with Mr. Obama over the weekend, Mr. Boehner called the meeting "cordial" and said that he was waiting for "the White House to identify what spending cuts the president is willing to make as part of the 'balanced approach' that he promised the American people."
"You know, where are the president's spending cuts?" Mr. Boehner said on the floor of the House, repeating a familiar Republican charge. "The longer the White House slow-walks this process, the closer our economy gets to the fiscal cliff."
Mrs. Pelosi fired back minutes later, claiming that most Americans support their effort to raise taxes on upper-income Americans.
"Mr. Speaker, the American people are serious and they have, in fact, made it clear where they stand: The wealthiest in our country must pay their fair share," Mrs. Pelosi said.
Mrs. Pelosi's office backed up her charge by pointing to four polls, including a McClatchy-Marist survey released Tuesday that found that 57 percent of the respondents said they back raising taxes on the nation's top earners, compared with 24 percent who supported letting all the tax cuts expire. The McClatchy-Marist poll reflected the findings of other polls on entitlements: 74 percent of those surveyed said they oppose cuts to Medicare and 70 percent said they oppose cuts to Medicaid.
"Democrats are committed to working with Republicans on a balanced, bipartisan solution to create jobs, grow the economy and reduce the deficit. House Republicans, on the other hand, refuse to touch one hair on the head of the wealthiest in our country," Mrs. Pelosi said in the email. "The Republican leadership continues to hold middle-class tax cuts — that the Senate has passed and the president is ready to sign — hostage to more tax breaks for the wealthiest.
"There's too much at stake," she said, "to not seriously listen to the American people and provide certainty this holiday season."
Mr. Obama offered the opening bid in the talks late last month by floating a proposal on Capitol Hill that called for $1.6 trillion in tax increases and a promise for $600 billion in future spending cuts — with the new revenue coming from higher marginal tax rates on the wealthy and the elimination of some deductions in the tax code.
Mr. Obama also has called for $50 billion in new infrastructure spending, as well as another year of the 2 percentage point payroll-tax cut and emergency unemployment benefits — both of which are scheduled to expire at the end of the year.
House Republican leaders delivered a counteroffer last week that included $800 billion in new taxes, which they derived from eliminating loopholes in the tax code. The plan called for a lower inflation measure to be used to calculate Social Security benefits and $900 billion in cuts to projected entitlements spending — though they have been vague about which programs would be affected.
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