* Respondents back defense budget of about $435 billion
* House panel passes authorization for $554 billion
By David Alexander
WASHINGTON, May 10 Lawmakers arguing over a proposed $5 billion cut in the U.S. defense budget might want to take a look at how much the American public would trim if given a chance - an average of $127 billion, according to a survey released on Thursday.
The survey, which explained the issues and let respondents decide budget levels, found that Americans would slash spending on nuclear weapons by an average of 27 percent, cancel the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the Pentagon's biggest weapons program, and scrap plans for a new aircraft carrier and long-range bomber.
Overall, respondents on average thought $435 billion was an appropriate level for the 2013 defense budget - about $127 billion less than 2012 levels - according to the survey, which was conducted by the Program for Public Consultation, a project involving the University of Maryland.
The survey was released hours after the House of Representatives Armed Services Committee passed a defense policy bill that would authorize spending of $554 billion for national defense in the 2013 fiscal year and $88.5 billion for the U.S. wars abroad.
The measure, which sets defense policy but does not actually appropriate funds, would add nearly $4 billion to the Pentagon's own spending request for 2013.
That would eliminate most of the $5 billion that Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has proposed to cut as part of efforts to curb the trillion-dollar U.S. budget deficit.
"The Armed Services and budget committees are doing everything that they can to spare defense from further cuts," said Matthew Leatherman, a defense budget analyst at the nonpartisan Stimson Center, which sponsored the survey along with the Center for Public Integrity.
"Most Americans disagree pretty markedly if you are going to use this survey as an indicator," he said. "They are ready to cut a good bit further. And they're doing that from a well-informed position."
Survey participants were selected at random and asked to take part online at their own pace. They were presented defense budget issues and arguments for and against. Then they were asked to set spending levels for programs that make up most of the defense budget.
Very little survived untouched.
Ground forces in the Army and Marines would take the biggest hit, slashed by an average of 23 percent, the survey found. Spending on naval power was clipped by an average of 13 percent and on air power by an average of 17 percent.
While nearly 80 percent of those questioned said they were convinced by arguments on the need for Special Operations Forces, they still supported an average of 10 percent cut in Special Ops spending, the survey said.
Not everything was cut. While slicing the existing capabilities of ground forces, respondents supported a 9 percent increase in work on new ground programs such as tanks, artillery and armored personnel carriers.
While Republicans and Democrats differed on the level of defense cuts, in most cases they agreed that some level of spending reductions were needed. Overall, Republicans on average supported an $83 billion cut to defense spending for 2013, while Democrats favored a $155.2 billion cut. (Editing by Christopher Wilson)