By David Morgan
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Most Americans want President Barack Obama and Congress to reduce the federal deficit without cutting Medicare, Social Security and education, according to polling data released Thursday.
A joint survey by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the Harvard School of Public Health and the Kaiser Family Foundation also showed majorities support President Barack Obama's plan to expand Medicaid and provide subsidized private health insurance to working families through new online state exchanges.
The survey found that two-thirds of Americans want Washington to reduce the deficit in the short term rather than wait for a stronger economy. That included 74 percent of Republicans, 71 percent of independents and 57 percent of Democrats.
At the same time, about two-thirds of the 1,347 adults polled January 3-9 rejected cuts to public education, Medicare and Social Security as a means of deficit reduction. Three-quarters said deficit reduction can occur without cuts to Medicare specifically. The findings have a 3 percentage point margin of error.
The data could suggest public support for Obama as he heads into another round of intensive deficit negotiations with Republicans while vowing to preserve the current structures of Medicare and the national Medicaid program for the poor. The two programs together are expected to cost more than $1 trillion in 2013 and serve just under 100 million people who are elderly, disabled or poor.
But experts said the results suggest political risk for Republicans and Democrats alike as deficit talks go forward.
"Both parties want a grand bargain. But I can't find a detail on either side. They want the other side to say what Medicare would look like before they come to the table. That is nervousness about public opinion," said Robert Blendon, a Harvard professor who studies political trends in healthcare.
Most respondents said deficit reduction can happen without cuts to Medicare and opposed a possible increase in the Medicare eligibility age from 65 to 67 that Democrats and Republicans have considered as a deficit-cutting option.
Majorities also opposed reducing payments to hospitals and other Medicare healthcare providers or raising payroll taxes on workers and employers to help fund the program for the elderly and disabled.
Instead, 68 percent of Americans favored a proposal to save money by reducing prescription drug prices for low-income people who receive Medicare benefits.
Separately, a new poll by Pew Research Center for the People & the Press also found that 72 percent of Americans believe reducing the federal budget deficit should be a top priority. More than two-thirds of the 1,500 adults polled by Pew from January 9 to 13 favored making Medicare and Social Security financially sound.
The survey by Robert Wood Johnson, Harvard and Kaiser also found that majorities of Americans favor two controversial provisions of Obama's Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act that would extend health coverage to more than 30 million people who currently have no health insurance.
The first provision, which would create state healthcare exchanges, was favored by 55 percent of respondents who said it should be a top priority for their state governors and legislators. Another 31 percent called the exchanges an important but lower priority. Support included clear majorities of Republicans and Democrats.
Additionally, 52 percent of respondents supported the second provision, which would expand the Medicaid program for the poor to nearly all Americans earning up to 133 percent of the poverty line, equaling about $24,000 a year for a family of three. But opinions split sharply along party lines.
Kaiser President and Chief Executive Drew Altman said the results depict a contrast between political ideology and tangible benefits in the mind of the public.
"The overall idea of the (law) creates a very mixed public reaction, certainly if you call it 'Obamacare.' But most of the benefits of the (law) are very popular, even on a bipartisan basis," he said.
(Reporting by David Morgan; Editing by Jilian Mincer and Dan Grebler)