President Obama called for Medicare and Medicaid reform in his jobs speech to Congress. And Texas Gov. Rick Perry called Social Security a “Ponzi scheme” in the previous night’s Republican debate.
It looks like everything could be up for grabs in the bipartisan race to dismantle our Federal government’s social safety net.
A Bipartisan Move to Tackle Benefits Programs
At the same time, Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill expressed a willingness to wring savings from the long-untouchable programs during the first meeting of the special committee that is charged with recommending $1.5 trillion in deficit reductions over the decade. Then President Obama, in his address to a joint session of Congress on spurring job creation, reiterated his call for a plan reducing long-term debt with both changes in entitlement programs and taxes from the wealthy.
To the chagrin of many in his party, this summer Mr. Obama proposed changes in Medicare and Social Security that once would have been unthinkable for a Democratic president during his unsuccessful talks with the House speaker, John A. Boehner, for a “grand bargain” on cutting deficits. In return for the Republicans’ agreement to raise taxes after 2012 for the wealthy, Mr. Obama indicated that his party would support slowly increasing the eligibility age for Medicare to 67 from 65 and changing the formula for cost-of-living increases in Social Security to a less generous one that some economists consider more accurate.
Until Mr. Perry’s recent entry into the Republican contest, the debate over reining in the projected growth of the entitlement programs focused on the health programs, Medicare and Medicaid. Their projected costs, given the aging of the population and fast-rising medical expenses, are greater and growing faster than those for Social Security.
The turn in both parties toward tackling the cost of the entitlement programs has been building. In 2010, Congressional Democrats approved about $500 billion in future savings from Medicare to help pay for the new health care law, though Republicans attacked them for it in last year’s midterm elections. But the onset of the new deficit committee’s work and Mr. Perry’s scathing critique of social spending has added a new dimension.
At the first meeting of the House-Senate committee on deficit reduction, which is to make recommendations by Nov. 23 for a quick up-or-down vote in Congress, several Republicans said that entitlements were the main cause of annual deficits and should be the panel’s focus.
James E. Clyburn of South Carolina, a House Democratic leader on the panel, said that he was for “smart and compassionate budget cuts” and “ending military adventurism,” but that Congress must not shred Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid benefits.
Separately, the senior Democrat on the House Ways and Means Committee, Sander M. Levin of Michigan, circulated a memo listing two dozen options that could squeeze more than $500 billion out of Medicare in the next 10 years. Aides to Mr. Levin said that he was not endorsing the ideas but helping other Democrats understand the sorts of actions that could be taken.