Image: Boehner
AFP - Getty Images
Speaker of the House John Boehner leaves the Capitol for a meeting with President Barack Obama at the White House in Washington on April 5.
By Deputy political director
NBC News
updated 4/6/2011 6:28:29 PM ET 2011-04-06T22:28:29

As negotiators in Congress squabble over the size and scope of spending cuts for the remainder of the fiscal year, Democrats and Republicans outside the Beltway differ dramatically in how they want their leaders to handle the budget stalemate, according to the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll.

In a contrast that illustrates why the standoff has pushed the federal government to the verge of a shutdown, the poll finds an overwhelming majority of Democrats wanting the leaders of their party in Congress to compromise, and a majority of Republicans wanting theirs to stand firm.

According to the poll, 68 percent of self-identified Democrats, as well as 76 percent of political independents, say they want Democratic leaders in the House and Senate to make compromises to gain consensus in the current spending debate.

By comparison, 56 percent of self-identified Republicans — and 68 percent of Tea Party supporters — want GOP leaders to stick to their position, even if it means the inability to achieve consensus.

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Read the full poll here (.pdf)

But while the Republican base is calling on its leaders to stand firm, key swing voters send a very different message — with 66 percent of independents saying they want GOP leaders in the House and Senate to compromise.

“In the Republican and Tea Party electorate, they want action in terms of [cutting] spending,” said GOP pollster Bill McInturff, who conducted the survey with Democratic pollster Peter D. Hart.

“There is no question that has to drive the leadership in terms of being responsive.”

If there's a government shutdown, the poll finds that there will be enough blame to go around.

A plurality of 37 percent say they would blame congressional Republicans, while 20 percent say they would blame President Barack Obama and another 20 percent would blame congressional Democrats.

Seventeen percent say they would blame everyone, and another 2 percent say they would blame both Obama and congressional Democrats.

Story: What a federal shutdown would look like

Yet both McInturff and Hart caution that these numbers could radically change if there is indeed a shutdown, given that only 19 percent of respondents in the poll believe that the current disagreement will result in one.

Poll: Who would bear the blame for a shutdown?

Measuring Ryan’s Medicare overhaul
In the midst of this spending debate, House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., on Tuesday unveiled a budget proposal for the next fiscal year that would, among other things, phase out Medicare, the government-run health insurance program for seniors.

Under Ryan’s plan, seniors would begin receiving a subsidy — the amount depending on one’s income — to pick the insurance plan of their choice. But this wouldn’t apply to those 55 and older.

According to the poll, however, a majority of Americans don’t believe Medicare needs significant changes.

A combined 44 percent think the program needs “major changes” or a “complete overhaul,” versus a combined 53 percent who think it needs just “minor modifications” or is “OK” the way it is.

Those numbers are virtually identical to the combined 44 percent who said in January 2005 that Social Security needed “major changes” or a “complete overhaul,” versus 54 percent who said it needed “minor modifications” or was “OK.” George W. Bush’s effort to reform Social Security that year was unsuccessful.

Video: Could shutdown backfire on Dems? (on this page)

By comparison, at the outset of Obama’s ultimately successful — but also incredibly polarizing — health care reform effort, a whopping 70 percent said the health system needed “major reform” or “complete overhaul.”

When the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey asked respondents about changes to Medicare that are similar to Ryan’s proposal, 21 percent said they were a good idea, 22 percent said they were bad idea and 56 percent had no opinion.

Yet 48 percent of respondents agree with the statement by reform supporters that Medicare is financially unsustainable and the plan will give seniors more health care choices, while 35 percent agree with the statement by opponents that the proposal will result in less coverage and more out-of-pocket costs for seniors.

Story: Uncertainty might be biggest shutdown cost

The poll was conducted of 1,000 adults (including 200 by cell phone) from March 31 to April 4, so before Ryan’s budget rollout on Tuesday. It has an overall margin of error of plus-minus 3.1 percentage points.

Obama and 2012
Obama’s approval rating in the poll stands at 49 percent, up one point from the last NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey; 45 percent say they disapprove.

“With the exception of that January bump-up [after the Tucson shootings], it’s the best job rating he’s received since May 2010,” said Hart, the Democratic pollster.

An identical 49 percent say they approve his handling of foreign policy, but the president’s numbers remain upside-down on the economy, with 45 percent approving and 52 percent disapproving.

On Monday, Obama officially filed his paperwork to run for re-election in 2012, and 43 percent of registered voters in the poll said they will probably vote for him, while 38 percent said they will probably vote for the Republican nominee.

But who will end up being Obama’s GOP challenger?

Romney in first, Trump tied for second
In the survey, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney leads the hypothetical pack with support from 21 percent of Republican primary voters — followed by former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and real-estate mogul Donald Trump at 17 percent each, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich at 11 percent and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin at 10 percent.

(Trump hosts the "The Apprentice" on NBC. Msnbc.com is a joint venture between NBC-Universal and Microsoft.)

Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty is at 6 percent, Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann gets 5 percent, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum receives 3 percent and Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour gets 1 percent.

Strikingly, Trump finishes first among Tea Party supporters (with 20 percent), followed by Romney (17 percent), Huckabee (14 percent), Palin (12 percent) and Gingrich (9 percent).

Poll: Trump tied for 2nd in 2012 GOP field

When the field is whittled down to five Republicans — Bachmann, Barbour, Gingrich, Pawlenty and Romney — Romney leads with 40 percent, Gingrich comes in second with 20 percent and Pawlenty is third with 12 percent.

The poll also measured candidate attributes. The most popular among all respondents: being a woman (a combined 85 percent said they were either enthusiastic or comfortable with that attribute), being an African American (84 percent), being a governor (81 percent), being a Catholic (77 percent), being a Hispanic (75 percent) and being a business executive (68 percent).

The least popular: being a former lobbyist (16 percent), being a FOX News commentator (31 percent), being a Tea Party leader (35 percent), being a person with multiple marriages (46 percent) and being a Mormon (49 percent).

On Libya and Afghanistan
Turning to foreign policy, majorities said they supported U.S. forces engaging in military action in Libya (52 percent), and establishing a no-fly zone there (66 percent).

Overall, 54 percent approve of Obama’s handling of Libya, while 40 percent disapprove.

But the public’s attitudes about the war in Afghanistan are more mixed.

Video: Obama to GOP: 'You have to make compromises' (on this page)

Fifty-four percent say the war there has been “somewhat successful,” but 60 percent say they’re less confident it will come to a successful conclusion.

Hart, the Democratic pollster, believes these numbers suggest this message: Declare victory and get out.

Overall, 46 percent approve of Obama’s handling of Afghanistan, which is down three points since January.

Mark Murray covers politics for NBC News.

© 2013 NBCNews.com  Reprints

Video: NBC/WSJ Poll: Chuck Todd crunches the numbers

Interactive: Budget brinkmanship

Explainer: What happens during a government shutdown?

  • Image: Boehner and Cantor
    Brendan Smialowski  /  Getty Images
    House Majority Leader Eric Cantor listens while Speaker of the House John Boehner speaks to the press Tuesday about a possible government shutdown.

    The White House and Congress have until Friday to reach agreement on an elusive federal spending-cut bill — or face a partial shutdown of the government beginning the next day.

    Relatively few federal employees work on weekends, so the impact of a shutdown likely won't be felt much until Monday morning when millions of them are set to report to work.

    It's been 15 years since the last government shutdown over spending disagreements. Here are some facts about what could happen.

  • Furloughed employees

    Based on previous shutdowns, several hundred thousand federal workers could be idled as nonessential, disrupting all but vital U.S. services such as national defense, emergency medical care and air traffic control. In addition, some employees of federal contractors may also be furloughed.

    Since 1980, all federal agencies have been required to have updated plans for potential shutdowns that include who would be furloughed and who would be kept on the job.

    Essential personnel in the last shutdown — employees who remained on the job — included members of the U.S. military, federal criminal investigators, those involved in federal disaster assistance and workers vital to keeping crucial elements of the U.S. money and banking system up and running.

  • Tax time

    Unlike the last two shutdowns, both of which occurred in the 1990s, this one would take place during tax preparation and filing season. That could mean delayed tax refunds to an untold number of Americans, congressional aides say.

  • National parks and museums

    The last shutdown closed much of the federal government from December 16, 1995, to Jan. 6, 1996. National parks and museums were closed, an estimated 200,000 applications for U.S. passports went unprocessed and work on more than 3,500 bankruptcy cases was suspended.

  • NIH and toxic waste

    Also during the last shutdown, new patients were not accepted into clinical research at the National Institutes of Health, hotline calls to NIH about diseases were not answered, and toxic waste cleanup work at 609 sites stopped.

  • Veterans and the elderly

    A shutdown may be felt on a number of fronts, including delays in approving import and export licenses and new benefits for military veterans, congressional aides say. Processing new Social Security applications may also be delayed, but checks for retirees are expected to go out on time.

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