WASHINGTON - To ease surging budget deficits, Americans prefer cutting federal services to raising taxes by nearly 2 to 1 in a new poll. Yet there is little consensus on specific, meaningful steps - and a wariness about touching two gargantuan programs, Social Security and Medicare.
An Associated Press-CNBC Poll showed widespread anxiety about budget shortfalls exceeding $1 trillion a year. Eighty-five percent worry that growing red ink will harm future generations - the strongest expression of concern since AP polls began asking the question in 2008. Fifty-six percent think the shortfalls will spark a major economic crisis in the coming decade.
As for detailed cures, the poll shows little agreement - a problem that has long bedeviled lawmakers who often speak about taming federal deficits but seldom vote to do so. Given more than a dozen options for helping balance the budget, majorities backed just four: Reduce the number of federal workers, trim their salaries, cut overseas military bases and eliminate the tax deduction on home mortgage interest in exchange for lower income tax rates.
"I'm sure there's waste somewhere," said Terri Davis, 44, a travel company employee from Ashburn, Va. "But I like a lot of government programs that keep order in the streets, that do research about what's dangerous. A lot of things are worthwhile."
Budget deficits have been winning increased attention from President Barack Obama and congressional Republicans, who will control the House next year and wield increased clout in the Senate. Despite their midterm election victory, the GOP holds only a slight edge in trust on the issue, with 1 in 8 saying they trust neither party, the poll shows.
Obama announced a pay freeze Monday for the government's 2 million nonmilitary civil servants, saying, "Getting this deficit under control is going to require some broad sacrifice."
A bipartisan deficit commission that Obama appointed is to issue a report this week, while another bipartisan panel dominated by former officials has released its own budget-balancing plan.
Asked to choose between two paths for balancing the budget, 59 percent in the AP-CNBC Poll preferred cutting unspecified government services while 30 percent picked unspecified tax increases. Republicans leaned heavily toward service reductions while Democrats, usually staunch advocates of federal spending, were about evenly split between the two alternatives.
The results underscored the political peril legislators face in considering tax boosts, especially with the struggling economy, rampant joblessness and ascendant tea party movement supporters insisting Washington is too powerful.
"We've got an awfully big government and a lot of waste," said Jackie Hallock, 53, a writer from Pawleys Island, S.C. "I think we should cut taxes, not raise taxes. They're already too high."
In a reversal from last month, most people oppose extending expiring tax cuts for the richest Americans. Just 34 percent want to renew tax cuts for everyone; 50 percent prefer extending the reductions only for those earning under $250,000 a year; and 14 percent want to end them for all.
If there's a ray of hope for policymakers, it's the expectation many have for a broadly aimed deficit-reduction effort.
Asked to consider each budget-balancing strategy separately, nearly two-thirds said tax increases will be needed to eliminate deficits and almost 8 in 10 said government services will have to be cut. A large majority of Democrats said spending cuts were inevitable, while about half of Republicans said tax increases were necessary - positions that are usually anathema for party leaders in Congress.
Combining those responses, just over half overall said spending cuts and higher taxes will be needed.
"The deficit is so immense, it's going to take a combination of things," said Mark Price, 52, a retiree from Roseville, Mich.
Whatever path is chosen, 54 percent want the burden shared evenly; 38 percent want the wealthiest to bear the biggest burden.
Even so, the public is not bristling to tackle the deficit.
Of seven issues tested, the deficit was even with taxes as fifth most mentioned, well behind the economy. Forty-seven percent said the deficit should be reduced with spending cuts even if new education, health and energy programs were eliminated, while 46 percent said those programs should grow even if the red ink expands.
When it comes to culling savings from Social Security and Medicare, the public mood runs from ambivalence to distaste. The giant pension and health care programs for the elderly together comprise a third of the $3.5 trillion annual budget.
People are about evenly divided on whether to reduce Medicare and Social Security benefits for the best-off seniors and whether to raise Social Security payroll taxes on the wealthiest Americans. Nearly two-thirds oppose raising the retirement age to 69 for people to receive full Social Security benefits. Most oppose raising the retirement age even if done gradually over the next 65 years.
Clear majorities oppose eliminating the tax credit for children, cutting the number of troops or their pay and trimming education and homeland security spending. People were split about evenly over cutting farm subsidies, while more opposed reducing Pentagon weapons research. Most opposed raising the federal gasoline tax and using the money for roads.
Illustrating how peoples' self-interest affects their choices, those with home mortgages split about evenly over whether to end the tax deduction on mortgage interest in exchange for lower rates, while those without mortgages strongly favor the idea.
The AP-CNBC Poll was conducted by GfK Roper Public Affairs & Corporate Communications between Nov. 18 and 22 and involved landline and cell phone interviews with 1,000 adults chosen randomly nationwide. The margin of sampling error is plus or minus 4.3 percentage points.