WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama said Wednesday that difficult debates on how to address the costs of Social Security and Medicare are "starting now," even though his 2012 budget blueprint lacked any major changes to the large benefit programs.
Illustrating the challenges ahead, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., stressed that any cost-cutting of major government benefit programs is possible "as long as you eliminate Social Security" from the discussion.
In an interview with a Cincinnati television station, Obama did not offer any specific modifications but did not take Social Security off the table, as Reid insisted. Obama has been having a number of budget discussions with congressional officials, meeting with Senate Democratic leaders on Wednesday and with House Republican leaders last week. He is scheduled to talk to House Democratic leaders on Thursday.
"We're starting now. I mean, the conversations have already begun," Obama told WCPO television, the ABC affiliate in Cincinnati.
Reid, who requested Wednesday's Senate leadership meeting with the president, reiterated his view in the meeting that Social Security is in fine shape for decades and shouldn't be targeted for cuts, according to two Democratic aides with knowledge of the discussion. They spoke on condition of anonymity to describe the private conversations.
"Social Security has contributed not a single penny to the deficit," Reid said earlier in the day. "So we can talk about entitlements as long as you eliminate Social Security. Because Social Security is not part of the problem we have in America with the deficit."
In the meeting, Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., told the president he thought Social Security should be considered separately from the budget, one aide said. Also attending were Sens. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Patty Murray, D-Wash.
Senior lawmakers in both parties have talked in general terms of seeking a broad deficit-reduction agreement later this year. Reining in the growing costs of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid are widely cited as essential ingredients in any such compromise. Medicaid is a state-federal program that provides health care to the lower-income. Social Security and Medicare, in particular, are politically sensitive, providing retirement and health benefits for millions of seniors.
House Republicans have said they plan a budget proposal that will take on overhauling Social Security and Medicare, and they have criticized Obama for failing to address the programs in his budget. Democratic lawmakers favor waiting to see what the GOP proposes before moving forward, aides said.
Adjusting Social Security and Medicare have been politically charged topics that both parties have used to attack each other, and any political party that seeks major changes unilaterally leaves itself open to criticism. Obama noted in a news conference this week that in the past, significant changes to Social Security were bipartisan.
In his interview with the Cincinnati television station, Obama carefully avoided showing his preferences for containing program costs.
"The key on both Social Security as well as Medicare is making sure that we do changes that strengthen the system, that make sure that the same amount of money going out is the same amount of money coming in," he said. "Social Security is a little easier to deal with. We know there are just four or five different things that we could do. The question is, what's the best mix? Medicare is a little tougher because it involves the health care system as a whole."
White House press secretary Jay Carney said Wednesday that making needed changes in the two massive programs will require compromise.
Carney distinguished between Social Security and Medicare, asserting that Social Security spending does not contribute to short-term deficits. And he reiterated Obama's assertion that he does not want to "slash" Social Security benefits. He declined to say whether Obama would accept any reduction in benefits for future retirees.
"The president wants to protect current retirees," Carney said. "He does not want a solution that slashes benefits."
Reid's spokesman, Jon Summers, said the Nevada Democrat opposes any cuts for Social Security recipients, as well as any reduction in benefits promised to future retirees. He also rejects an increase in the age at which workers can begin to draw full Social Security retirement, Summers said, adding, "he sees that as a benefit cut."
Though Obama's budget did not contain any adjustments to those programs, a presidential deficit-reduction commission floated several late last year. Among them was an increase in the age for full retirement benefits under Social Security, and steps to slow the growth of future benefits.
"We're waiting for presidential leadership," Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said on Wednesday. "We know and will say again that entitlement reform will not be done except on a bipartisan basis with presidential leadership."
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The Cincinnati interview was one of several Obama conducted Wednesday, as he tried to pitch his budget proposals to audiences in the districts of key Republicans. In addition to the Cincinnati station, which broadcasts in House Speaker John Boehner's home district, Obama granted interview to stations in the districts of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia and Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin.
Carney sidestepped a question about the significance of reaching those markets. "Those are important states, important parts of the country," he said.
Associated Press writers Jim Kuhnhenn in Washington, Kantele Franko in Columbus, Ohio, and Dinesh Ramde in Milwaukee contributed to this report.