Alex Brandon, File, Associated Press
WASHINGTON — Is anyone going to fix Social Security? Medicare? Medicaid? Before they overwhelm the federal government?
While President Barack Obama and congressional leaders offer vague assurances, six senators — three Republicans and three Democrats whose ideologies cover the liberal-conservative spectrum — are quietly taking up the baton.
Those with bigger titles, including the president, are watching, ready to join the discussion if this Gang of Six doesn't trip on the opening lap. Obama did little to address entitlement programs in the 10-year budget he unveiled Monday, and House Republicans aren't touching them as they debate how much and where to cut other, mainly non-benefit programs for the next seven months.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said Thursday he plans to work on cutting wasteful spending in entitlement programs this spring, but offered no details. House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., said House Republicans will address guaranteed benefit programs in their 2012 budget plan, though Social Security isn't expected to be part of the plan.
For now, much of the debate on Capitol Hill is over a relatively small slice of the federal budget, a category known as non-security discretionary spending. The category includes many important programs, but accounts for just 12 percent of the budget.
By comparison, Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid will make up more than 40 percent of federal spending next year. If left unchecked, these three programs will grow to more than 60 percent of federal spending by 2035, when baby boomers will be at least 70, according to the president's budget proposal.
Social Security and Medicare already collect less in payroll taxes than they pay out in benefits, though both programs have sizeable trust funds from previous surpluses. If Congress doesn't act, Social Security and Medicare will eventually be overwhelmed by the millions of baby boomers reaching retirement age. Medicare faces the additional problem of rising health care costs, an issue that was only partially addressed by Obama's health care overhaul.
"I believe it without question that we are on a course that will lead to a financial disaster," said Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., chairman of the Senate Budget Committee. "And it is our responsibility to bring the country back from the brink. It is our obligation, and it's got to start here."
Conrad, a moderate Democrat, has been quietly meeting with his five Senate colleagues for several weeks. The group includes another moderate, Democrat Mark Warner of Virginia; a liberal Democrat, Dick Durbin of Illinois; and three conservative Republicans — Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, Mike Crapo of Idaho and Saxby Chambliss of Georgia.
Their work builds on the plan produced by Obama's deficit commission in December, which called for about $1 trillion in tax increases and $2.9 trillion in spending cuts over the next decade. The senators are working to set similar spending caps and tax increases as part of an overhaul of the tax code. Their work has sparked opposition from liberal groups concerned about benefit programs and conservatives opposed to tax increases.
Conservative activist Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, told Crapo, Coburn and Chambliss in a letter Thursday that any support by them for a tax increase would be considered a violation of their pledge to not raise taxes.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., tried to take Social Security off the table a day earlier.
"Social Security has contributed not a single penny to the deficit so we can talk about entitlements as long as you eliminate Social Security, because Social Security is not part of the problems we have in America with the deficit," Reid told The Associated Press.
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