By Donna Smith
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A majority of Americans prefer cutting defense spending to reduce the federal deficit rather than taking money from public retirement and health programs, a Reuters/Ipsos poll released on Wednesday showed.
The poll found 51 percent of Americans support reducing defense spending, and only 28 percent want to cut Medicare and Medicaid health programs for the elderly and poor. A mere 18 percent back cuts in the Social Security retirement program.
The Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security programs, known as entitlements, and defense spending together account for about two-thirds of the $3.7 trillion federal budget, but they are not a major part of the debate in Congress over spending cuts.
Lawmakers are more focused on cutting so-called discretionary spending, but some experts say Congress will eventually need to cut entitlements to make a major dent in the country's $1.6 trillion deficit and $14 trillion debt.
The poll suggests lawmakers could face political peril if they touch the popular health and retirement programs.
"People recognize that defense is a big part of the budget and they are more likely to want to cut things that don't affect them directly," said Ipsos pollster Cliff Young.
The poll also showed Americans' confidence in the way the country is going has slumped to a two-year low in the last month, and a pollster blamed soaring gas prices.
Republican leaders in the House of Representatives said they will include the federal health and retirement programs in an upcoming 2012 budget plan.
The proposals for Medicare and Social Security will focus on future recipients and protect current retirees and those approaching retirement, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor told reporters on Tuesday.
Senator Charles Schumer, speaking to the liberal think tank Center for American Progress, said on Wednesday the popular health programs would likely be part of any bipartisan deficit-reduction agreement, which would also have to include tax increases.
Social Security savings, however, would be put on a separate track to shore up the pension system, Schumer said.
TAXES AND DEFENSE
Schumer said defense spending, long off limits for many lawmakers, also will have to be in the deficit-cutting mix.
"Under an all-of-the-above approach, the Pentagon should not be treated as off limits. There is waste in defense just like there is waste in the rest of the discretionary budget," Schumer said.
Republicans so far have refused to consider tax increases as part of their deficit reduction effort. The Reuters/Ipsos poll shows the American public would rather cut spending than raise taxes. Fifty-six percent said they would cut existing programs while only 30 percent said they prefer raising taxes.
Not surprisingly, an overwhelming 79 percent of Republicans prefer spending cuts to tax increases, while 49 percent of independents and 41 percent of Democrats prefer that approach. Only 14 percent of Republicans said they would choose raising taxes, while 46 percent of Democrats and 21 percent of independents said they would raise revenues.
Democrats have voiced concern that Republican efforts to slash $61 billion from this year's federal spending could result in job losses. About 48 percent of those polled said they believe the spending cuts will hurt jobs.
But only 45 percent said the proposed cuts this year are essential to balancing the budget.
The telephone poll of 1,040 adults was conducted March 3-6, and is considered accurate within 3.1 percentage points.
(Additional reporting by Richard Cowan, Steve Holland; Editing by John Whitesides)