WASHINGTON — The Republican drive to cut spending, which begins in earnest this week, marks a political gamble that the public's hunger for smaller government will trump its appetite for benefits, subsidies and other federal support.
Rep. Tom Price, R-Ga., calls it the "$64,000 question," and then promptly answers it.
"People will be supportive of almost any decreases in spending as long as they believe they're done in an open, equitable and fair manner," said Price.
Democrats sound disbelieving.
"I'm not sure which country they're speaking to," said Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla. "How they think that ... slashing important programs is going to help jump start the economy is beyond me."
The polls make clear the potential risks for both sides.
In an Associated Press-CNBC survey last November, shortly after Republicans scored large gains in the midterm elections, 87 percent of those polled said record federal deficits were likely to cause a major economic crisis over the next decade. Also, 85 percent said the cost of financing the federal debt would cause problems for their children or grandchildren.
Yet only 47 percent said cutting spending should be a higher priority than increasing it on education, health care and alternative energy development, which was backed by 46 percent.
In a CNN survey last month, those questioned said by an 81-18 ratio that is was more important to prevent significant cuts to Medicare than to reduce the deficit. For Social Security, the split was 78-21.
The House voted to reduce its own budget and went on record in favor of eliminating federal subsidies for presidential candidates and party conventions.
This changes in the coming week, when work begins on a bill to keep the government in operation after March 4, but at a level $35 billion lower than enacted for last year.