KEENE, N.H. — Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum called Friday for immediate cuts to Social Security benefits, risking the wrath of older voters and countless others who balk at changes to the entitlement program.
"We can't wait 10 years," even though "everybody wants to," Santorum told a crowd while campaigning in New Hampshire and looking to set himself apart from his Republican rivals four days before the New Hampshire primary.
Most of his opponents have advocated phasing in a reduction and say immediate cuts would be too big a shock to current and soon-to-be retirees.
Politicians typically suggest phase-in periods of up to a decade when broaching the topic of changing Social Security to avoid grievous consequences from angering older voters.
Clearly aware of the risks, Santorum argued that everyone must sacrifice now because the nation's "house is on fire" with soaring federal debt. He argued that he is being courageous and honest by telling Americans they can't afford to wait to rein in Social Security's growing costs. And he said he anticipated possible attack ads on his position.
He made a similar pitch last week in Fort Dodge, Iowa, when he was getting little attention in the GOP race — and before he came from the back of the pack to nearly win the Iowa caucuses.
At that event, Santorum said: "The Democratic National Committee is going to say, 'Ah, ... he's for changing benefits now.' Yes, I am. Yes, I am."
"We need to change benefits for everybody now," Santorum said at the time. "Is everybody going to take a little bit of a hit? No, but a lot of people will."
Santorum, a former senator from Pennsylvania, says changes should include a higher eligibility age to qualify for Social Security benefits, and tighter restrictions on benefits for upper-income people. Americans now qualify for reduced Social Security benefits at age 62 and full benefits at 66, soon to rise to 67.
Social Security pays proportionately higher benefits to low-income people. But Santorum says wealthy retirees' proportionate benefits should be trimmed further. He did not offer details.
This week, he told New Hampshire audiences that Americans over 65 were society's poorest age group in 1937, when Social Security was created. Now that group is the wealthiest, he said.
He also noted that Americans now live much longer, putting far bigger demands on the government retirement program.
Santorum offers only modest details on how he would implement his proposed changes. He has not said how much money he hopes to save.
In a brief interview Friday as he plowed his way through a crowd after the Keene event, he was asked if the nation should make the changes now.
"I think we should, yeah," Santorum said. "Obviously we're going to have to go through a debate next year and figure out ways in which to make the revenues meet the expenditures."
He tells voters he would rule out higher taxes or more deficit spending to help the Social Security program. That leaves benefit cuts as the only way to match revenues and costs, he notes.
Santorum's call for immediate benefit cuts puts him at odds with his Republican rivals.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who came under fire for calling Social Security a "Ponzi Scheme," tried to recover in part by emphasizing that any changes in benefits would not affect current or soon-to-be retirees.
Rep. Ron Paul of Texas says younger workers should be able to opt out of Social Security taxes and retirement benefits. "My plan explicitly protects the elderly and the sick in the transition," he says.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney has said in a statement, "We must keep the promises made to our current retirees: their Social Security and Medicare benefits should not be affected."
Like Santorum, Romney has called for increasing the eligibility age for Social Security and slowing benefits to high-income recipients. His aides have said the pace of change has yet to be decided, but soon-to-be beneficiaries would not be affected.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich calls for giving younger workers the option of diverting Social Security taxes to private retirement accounts. Some independent groups say his proposal, which is based on a Chilean program and does not anticipate automatic benefit cuts, is unduly optimistic.
President Barack Obama last year discussed possible reductions in Social Security benefits as part of a large debt-reduction deal with House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio. The talks collapsed, however.
The Romney and Gingrich campaigns had no immediate comment Friday on Santorum's proposals.
A House Republican budget-cutting plan, authored by Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., would exempt everyone now over 55 from proposed reductions in Social Security benefits.
Ryan and others have said a phased-in change would give Americans time to plan their retirements without surprises. But Santorum says those officials are seeking political cover by delaying their proposed changes.
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"That's why you see Paul Ryan saying, 'Oh, I'm going to fix Social Security, I'm going to fix Medicare in 10 years,'" Santorum told a crowd Thursday in Northfield, N.H.
He said Ryan assumes, "well, if you're under 55, you won't be paying much attention, right? Well, the problem is, this is not a problem that we can wait 10 years to solve."
Max Richtman, president of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, said in an interview that cuts in Social Security benefits are not justified under any timetable.
Santorum, he said, "is willing to change the rules in the middle of the game." He called Santorum's proposals "Ryan on steroids."