Don't mess with Big Bird. And don't even think about touching Medicare.
Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney ran into a brick wall of protests and ridicule when he proposed ending subsidies for Big Bird's parent, the Public Broadcasting Service, as one small step toward curbing runaway budget deficits.
President Barack Obama and House Speaker John Boehner are locked in negotiations to avert a pending fiscal crisis. This weekend, Boehner offered $1 trillion in higher tax revenue over 10 years and to increase the tax rate on people making more than $1 million in exchange for $1 trillion in cuts from benefit programs like Medicare. Democrats rejected the proposal.
The country broadly agrees that federal budget deficits need to be cut. There's solid support for raising taxes on the wealthy, but those tax increases alone wouldn't solve the problem.
And, as Democrats' response to Boehner's offer shows, cutting spending is extremely difficult. Advocacy groups warn that cuts to Medicare or any other part of the nation's social safety net, even reductions in projected increases, would be devastating.
Look in the mirror for the key to the problem: An ever-increasing number of Americans get a piece of federal spending.
Almost 150 million Americans -- 49 percent -- receive some government benefit. That includes Social Security, veterans' benefits, Medicare or Medicaid and food stamps, according to Census Bureau figures from last year, the most recent available.
80 million get help from Medicaid, the health insurance for the poor.
49 million get Social Security.
48 million get food stamps.
45 million get Medicare.
Beyond that, there are price supports for farmers. Money for schools. Road, bridge and highway construction programs that employ thousands. Popular PBS shows.
"It's really quite simple: People who get the spending like to keep getting it," veteran Washington budget analyst Stan Collender said. "Almost any spending that's still in the budget has substantial political support."
In the Kansas City area, thousands of citizens benefit from government payments. Last year, those payments made up 27 percent of the total personal income in Wyandotte County and dropped to 9 percent in wealthier Johnson County.
In Jackson County, government payments made up 19 percent of total personal income. In Clay County, government payouts constituted 15 percent of total income, while in Platte County, it was 12 percent.
Numerous polls show widespread enthusiasm for cutting spending in general, but there's resistance to specific trims, Collender said.
"With the possible exception of foreign aid, and every once in a while NASA, almost nothing has a majority of support for cutting," Collender said. "If you read the public opinion polls, Americans don't want their government to do less, they just want it to cost less."
Indeed, a recent McClatchy-Marist Poll found overwhelming opposition to every option mentioned to cut spending. Fully 85 percent of voters oppose any reductions in Medicare. Fifty-nine percent oppose raising the eligibility age for Medicare. The opposition cuts across party lines, with a majority of Republicans joining Democrats in opposing cuts to Medicare or Medicaid.
The personal stake in the federal budget has multiplied since the creation of Medicare in the 1960s and the expansion of it to cover prescription drugs in the last decade.
Federal spending sent to individuals for entitlements such as food stamps, Medicaid, Medicare and Social Security has more than doubled as a share of the federal budget, from 25 percent in 1960 to more than 60 percent today.
Erskine Bowles, a former Clinton White House chief of staff who was co-chairman of a bipartisan budget commission, said the broad vested interest made it hard to cut spending.
"Everybody is like my mama," who wants the problem fixed without touching Medicare, Bowles said. Politicians say they want to trim spending, "except the thing that's important to them," he said. "
Entitlements are particularly tricky. Millions of people paid taxes into the system to qualify for the benefits, and the programs are credited with lifting millions out of poverty.
Although experts expect a recent spike in food stamps and other anti-poverty efforts to level off as the economy improves, most of the increases in federal spending have been in Medicare and Medicaid, as health care costs escalate.
"Our increased spending isn't necessarily a case of waste or of Congress spending like drunken sailors. It's happening because providing an increasingly expensive service to an increasing number of people is increasingly expensive," said Robert Bixby, the executive director of the Concord Coalition, a nonpartisan budget-research group.
But the entitlement programs pack a political punch.
"We all hear: 'My opponent will cut your Medicare. Grandma is going to be eating cat food,' " Bixby said. "One of the reasons that it's difficult to hold a good, honest discussion about these programs is because the changes are so easily demagogued."
The Star's Steve Kraske contributed to this report.