Voters appear to be siding with Republicans over Democrats so far in the “high-noon” showdown over federal budget cuts -- but that may continue only as long as voters believe Republicans are acting in good faith to try to avoid an impasse that would temporarily shut down parts of the federal government.
According to a poll published Monday by TheHill.com, voters see Republicans as “more reasonable” than Democrats so far in budget negotiations – by a 41 percent to 29 percent margin.
“Voters want cuts,” Democratic pollster and Fox News contributor Douglas Schoen. “The November election results made that clear.”
The Hill poll was particularly notable given Democratic efforts to portray the GOP cuts as “extreme.”
On Face the Nation on Sunday, Majority Leader Harry Reid said GOP leaders are intimidated by the tea parties. “The Tea Party is dictating a lot that goes on in the Republican leadership in the House," he said.
Democrats have said they are close to a deal with GOP leaders that would continue funding the federal government for the remainder of the current fiscal year, in return for $31 billion in budget cuts.
But House Speaker John Boehner, who would have to sign off on any deal, disputes those reports. One major sticking point: GOP riders that would eliminate funding for pet Democratic programs such as Planned Parenthood and NPR.
Because the Democratic-controlled 111th Congress opted not to try to pass a budget prior to the midterm elections, the federal government has been operating on a series of continuing resolutions authorizing its operations. The current funding resolution expires this Friday.
Last week, Democratic Sen. Charles Schumer was overheard on an open microphone remarking that his caucus had instructed him to label Republican proposals as “extreme” at every opportunity. He has refused to back down from that characterization.
Tea Party Nation founder Judson Phillips fired back at Democrats on Sunday, telling Fox: "I think radical and extreme is driving the country into bankruptcy which is what the Democrats want to do... You want to talk about radical and extreme, talk about Harry Reid. That is radical and extreme.”
The Hill poll suggests that despite the traditional pork-barrel tenor to American politics, Republicans could win the political battle over austerity measures if they sound the right political tone.
“Voters will be watching this closely to determine which side appears to be more reasonable,” University of Virginia Center for Politics director Larry J. Sabato tells Newsmax.
“I think that’s the key,” he adds. “The party that seems more inflexible, or hell-bent on a shutdown, will get most of the blame. No doubt many voters will place some blame on both sides.”
Republicans have countered the “extreme” characterization by highlighting remarks indicating some Democrats may view a shutdown as a political opportunity.
Last week, Howard Dean, the former head of the Democratic National Committee, told a National Journal gathering that he finds himself “quietly rooting” for a shutdown from a purely political viewpoint.
“From a partisan point of view, I think it would be the best thing in the world to have a shutdown,” said the former governor of Vermont. “I know who’s going to get blamed. We’ve been down this road before.”
But The Hill poll suggests that Democrats could be in danger of overplaying their hand, and that the electorate may be more open to the need to cut spending than previously believed.
Schoen notes that despite their control of the White House and the Senate, Democrats have been noticeably silent on how they propose to tackle the nation’s looming, trillion-plus budget deficits.
“So far the discussion has been largely theoretical, as Republicans have proposed them and Democrats have been largely silent,” Schoen tells Newsmax. “Perhaps it is a good strategy for Obama to stay above it all. But that’s probably untenable for congressional Democrats who have to heed the will of the people.
“And so far,” he adds, “they’ve been ‘missing in action.’”
Republicans haven’t forgotten a March NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, however, that showed less than a quarter of U.S. voters favor making significant cuts to either Social Security or Medicare in order to balance the budget.
Given voters’ alarm about spiraling indebtedness, however, no one can be sure how much the public’s reaction to a shutdown would mirror the backlash in 1995. Most analysts believe that helped propel then-President Bill Clinton to a second term.
Tea Party Express founder Sal Russo tells Newsmax he’s uncertain whether Congress will be able to head off a shutdown this time.
“The public expects that politicians heed their message and do their job and work things out,” Russo says. “In the election of 2010, the tea party movement helped demonstrate that politicians weren’t doing their jobs, that spending was out of control, that we couldn’t sustain the debts that we are creating.
“And I think the American people woke up and said, ‘Hey, this system was totally broken in Washington and in the state capitals around the country.’ And so we saw this huge explosion that changed the course that politics looked like on the day that [CNBC anchor] Rick Santelli did his rant.”
But Russo urged grass-roots conservatives not to blame House Speaker John Boehner for Democrats’ unwillingness to give significant ground on balancing the budget.
“We’re not going to achieve victory just by having a majority in the House,” Russo tells Newsmax. “So I kind of all this beating up on John Boehner is kind of counterproductive. Boehner’s not the problem. The problem is Harry Reid and Barack Obama -- there’s our problem.”
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