WASHINGTON -- Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security should be off the table as congressional leaders attempt to broker a deal to avoid the sequester that kicks in Jan. 1, according to a new survey from Democracy Corps and the Campaign for America's Future.
The survey by two progressive groups found that voters support an approach to the country's economic woes that includes protecting entitlement benefits as well as raising taxes on the wealthiest earners and bolstering investments to aid long-term growth.
"Americans are not looking for austerity now," said Robert Borosage, co-director of the Campaign for America's Future. "They are looking for a program, a long-term program, that will create jobs and will get the economy going and that will bring [the deficit] into balance over time."
Seventy percent of the 1,000 voters polled on Nov. 6-7 called for increased investment in Medicare, Social Security and education, as opposed to only 27 percent who advocated the across-the-board cuts that Republicans have pushed -- and to which Democrats have generally acquiesced -- in budget negotiations over the past two years. Three-fourths of voters opposed deep cuts in domestic programs, including K-12 schools and college aid. Only 25 percent found such measures acceptable.
"[Voters] would prioritize job creation first," Borosage said. "They would demand that all Americans be asked to pay their fair share of taxes and the top-end Bush tax cuts not be extended. They would protect Medicare, Social Security, Medicaid, and they would protect vital services for the most vulnerable. These are the principles that, as we showed, overwhelming majorities of American voters [hold]."
The overwhelming support for entitlement programs and domestic spending contrasts directly with the conversations and proposals of GOP leaders on Capitol Hill. During the 2011 debt ceiling crisis, Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) pushed to slash as much as $500 billion to $600 billion from Medicaid, Medicare and Social Security over the next 10 years -- a plan that President Barack Obama rejected hands down, both for turning Medicaid into little more than a block grant program and for forcing seniors to shoulder more of their health care costs under Medicare. But Obama was no firm defender of the old-age programs. He was open to raising Medicare's eligibility age and making other broad cuts, but would do so only in exchange for a tax increase on the wealthy. He was also open to trimming the rate of growth in Social Security payments.
The vast majority of Americans reject the type of approach advocated by Boehner and Cantor -- and pushed by the Simpson-Bowles deficit reduction plan of 2010. According to Borosage's survey, 80 percent consider unacceptable the notion of capping Medicare grants, which would inevitably force seniors to pay more out of pocket as rising health care costs outpaced their benefits.
In order to rein in the federal government's ballooning deficit, Democrats have pushed to increase taxes on the highest income brackets and on corporations. Republicans thus far have drawn a firm line in the sand against raising taxes.
"The American people want solutions -- and tonight, they've responded by renewing our House Republican majority," Boehner told a group of Republicans on Tuesday. "With this vote, the American people have also made clear that there is no mandate for raising tax rates."
The electorate appears to feel differently. Just over 50 percent of those surveyed believe that any deficit reduction plan should include tax hikes for the highest earners and fewer loopholes for corporations. Nearly two-thirds find it acceptable to cut subsidies for agribusiness and the oil and gas industries, which would save around $23 billion over the next 10 years. Seventy percent of Americans agree with Obama's proposition to require the wealthiest 2 percent to bear more of a tax burden.
"By attacking [the Republicans'] plan for not taxing the rich and not closing those loopholes and putting Social Security and Medicare on the table, you win the argument by 10 [percentage] points," said Democracy Corps co-founder Stan Greenberg.
In the wake of the 2012 election, the leadership of both parties has professed to being open to compromise in order to avoid the so-called fiscal cliff.
Boehner has expressed a willingness to increase federal revenues through comprehensive tax reform that would lower the top marginal rates -- although in 2011, he said total revenues should be capped at $800 billion over the next decade.
"In order to garner Republican support for new revenues, the president must be willing to reduce spending and shore up the entitlement programs that are the primary drivers of our debt," Boehner said Wednesday.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has likewise said that Democrats are ready to negotiate over serious issues like entitlement reform, although he told reporters Wednesday that changes to Social Security were not an option.
"Compromise is not a dirty word. I'm willing to negotiate any time on any issue," Reid said. "I'm going to do everything in my power to be conciliatory. I want to work together, but I want everyone to also understand, you cannot push us around."
Whether the electorate's views, as reflected in the new survey, will align with that compromise remains to be seen.
"Americans are very much in a different set of priorities than [Alan] Simpson and [Erskine] Bowles, the co-chairs of the president's deficit commission, or than the terms of the discussions last summer between the president and Boehner over the grand bargain," Borosage said.
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