In debt talks, Obama offers Social Security cuts

President Obama is pressing congressional leaders to consider a far-reaching debt-reduction plan that would force Democrats to accept major changes to Social Security and Medicare in exchange for Republican support for fresh tax revenue.

At a meeting with top House and Senate leaders set for Thursday morning, Obama plans to argue that a rare consensus has emerged about the size and scope of the nation’s budget problems and that policymakers should seize the moment to take dramatic action.

As part of his pitch, Obama is proposing significant reductions in Medicare spending and for the first time is offering to tackle the rising cost of Social Security, according to people in both parties with knowledge of the proposal. The move marks a major shift for the White House and could present a direct challenge to Democratic lawmakers who have vowed to protect health and retirement benefits from the assault on government spending.

“Obviously, there will be some Democrats who don’t believe we need to do entitlement reform. But there seems to be some hunger to do something of some significance,” said a Democratic official familiar with the administration’s thinking. “These moments come along at most once a decade. And it would be a real mistake if we let it pass us by.”

Rather than roughly $2 trillion in savings, the White House is now seeking a plan that would slash more than $4 trillion from annual budget deficits over the next decade, stabilize borrowing, and defuse the biggest budgetary time bombs that are set to explode as the cost of health care rises and the nation’s population ages.

That would represent a major legislative achievement, but it would also put Obama and GOP leaders at odds with major factions of their own parties. While Democrats would be asked to cut social-safety-net programs, Republicans would be asked to raise taxes, perhaps by letting tax breaks for the nation’s wealthiest households expire on schedule at the end of next year.

The administration argues that lawmakers would also get an important victory to sell to voters in 2012. “The fiscal good has to outweigh the pain,” said a Democratic official familiar with the discussions.

It is not clear whether that argument can prevail on Capitol Hill. Thursday’s meeting at the White House — an attempt by Obama to break the impasse that halted debt-reduction talks two weeks ago — will provide a critical opportunity for leaders in both parties to say how far they’re willing to go to restrain government borrowing as the clock ticks toward an Aug. 2 deadline for raising the debt limit.

Privately, some congressional Democrats were alarmed by the president’s proposal, which could include adjusting the measure of inflation used to determine Social Security payouts. But others described it as primarily a bargaining strategy intended to demonstrate Obama’s willingness to compromise and highlight the Republican refusal to raise taxes.

Obama has already spoken to House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) about the possibility of building support for a more ambitious debt-reduction plan, according to people with knowledge of those talks, who, like others quoted in this article, spoke on the condition of anonymity to shed light on private negotiations. The two discussed various options for overhauling the tax code and cutting entitlement spending, but they reached no agreement.

Asked to comment, Boehner spokesman Michael Steel would say only that “there are no tax increases on the table.”

Meanwhile, another senior Republican on Wednesday signaled a new openness to raising taxes— at least for selected special interests. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (Va.) told reporters that he is now willing to consider Democratic demands to end tax breaks for corporations, hedge-fund managers and owners of corporate jets, so long as the final deal does not raise tax rates or overall federal tax collections.

“If the president wants to talk loopholes, we’ll be glad to talk loopholes,” Cantor said at his weekly roundtable with reporters. “We’ve said all along that preferences in the code aren’t something that helps economic growth overall. But listen, we’re not for any proposal that increases taxes, and any type of discussion should be coupled with offsetting tax cuts somewhere else.”

Among the options for cutting taxes are a number of proposals that should appeal to Democrats, said Cantor spokesman Brad Dayspring. They include a White House proposal to temporarily reduce payroll taxes for employers, an idea aimed at propping up the sputtering economy. Democrats also routinely support an annual effort to restrain the alternative minimum tax, which would otherwise strike heavily at households in high-cost urban areas that tend to vote Democratic.

Even as Cantor cracked the door open, however, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) slammed it shut, reiterating the long-standing Republican position that policymakers should consider eliminating tax breaks only as part of a comprehensive effort to rewrite the code and lower income tax rates.

“To sort of cherry-pick items in the context of this current negotiation with the White House strikes me as pretty challenging,” McConnell told reporters, adding that raising taxes on any sector of the economy could trigger job losses at a time when the unemployment rate hovers around 9 percent. “We want to tackle deficit reduction in a way that doesn’t exacerbate unemployment.”

Democrats, in any case, dismissed Cantor’s offer, saying it makes no sense to cut taxes in a package whose primary goal is to reduce borrowing.

“It is like taking one step forward and then two steps back,” said Sen. Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.). “The point isn’t to get rid of these loopholes simply to pay for new tax breaks elsewhere. It’s to do it in a way that contributes to the reduction of the debt.”

With Obama offering major savings from entitlement programs, Republican intransigence on taxes looms as the biggest sticking point in the debt negotiations. Policymakers are rushing to craft a debt-reduction deal big enough to persuade reluctant lawmakers to approve an increase in the legal limit on government borrowing, which now stands at $14.3 trillion.

The national debt hit the limit in mid-May. Unless Congress acts before Aug. 2, Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner has said, the government will begin to default on its obligations for the first time in history.

WATCH: Guide to understanding the federal debt

READ: Latest coverage of the debt ceiling showdown

Staff writers Felicia Sonmez and Rosalind S. Helderman contributed to this report.

Lori Montgomery covers U.S. economic policy and the federal budget, focusing on efforts to tame the national debt.
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