By Steven R. Hurst
WASHINGTON, Feb. 16 —
President Barack Obama said Tuesday overhauling America’s safety net programs for the elderly and the poor, a key to lowering the spiraling U.S. debt, must be done by congressional Democrats and Republicans working together. The political battle will be brutal.
Republicans are now back in charge in the House of Representatives, a new majority that includes a group of ultraconservative tea party members who are determined to cut both the size of government and how much it spends.
Speaking at a news conference a day after releasing his 2012 budget — a $3.73 trillion spending plan — Obama said the politically explosive changes in those programs cannot be solved through dictates from the White House. The White House budget proposal does not address reforms to the Social Security pension system, Medicare medical insurance for the elderly or the Medicare program for poor people. Social Security and Medicare are the two largest items in the U.S. budget.
Obama said he was not avoiding the problem in the new budget proposal, but allowing time for politicians to work out their differences.
“There’s going to be a lot of ups and downs in the coming months as we get to that solution,” the president said in a news conference. “I’m confident that we can get this done.”
The president described his massive budget as one of tough choices. It aims to reduce the deficit by $1.1 trillion over 10 years with a mix of spending freezes on other domestic programs, a cap on pay raises for federal civilian workers and new revenues from increased taxes on the wealthy and on oil and gas producers.
Obama’s deficit cutting plan is far below a what was called for by his fiscal debt commission. It outlined spending cuts that would eliminate nearly four times as much from annual deficits.
“Look at the history of how these deals get done,” Obama said Tuesday. “Typically it’s not because there’s an Obama plan out there. It’s because Democrats and Republicans are committed to tackling this in a serious way.”
The commission’s bipartisan report included politically difficult recommendations such as increasing the Social Security retirement age and reducing future increases in benefits. And while Obama has promised to overhaul the corporate tax system, he stops short of commission recommendations that would lower rates but generate additional revenue at the same time. Obama has called for “revenue neutral” fixes to corporate taxes, meaning they would neither cost more money nor add money to the treasury.
“I’m not suggesting we don’t have to do more,” the president said.
Obama conceded that entitlement and tax changes are necessary and said Democrats and Republicans set a model for cooperation during the December post-election congressional session when they negotiated a tax-cutting plan.
“My suspicion is that we’re going to be able to do the same thing if we have the same attitude about entitlements,” he said.
Following his party’s sweeping defeats in the November elections, Obama pledged to refocus his agenda on the economy and creating jobs. He used last month’s State of the Union address to lay out an agenda that he said would spur job growth in the short-term and increase U.S. competitiveness in the future.
Obama’s budget aims to cut the deficit in part with tax increases, including eliminating tax breaks for oil and gas producers. Those increases failed to win support before under a Democratic control Congress. The measures face an even tougher challenge now that Republicans control the House of Representatives.
“I continue to believe I’m right,” he said, when asked why he relied on previously defeated proposals. “So we’re going to try again.” — AP