WASHINGTON -- The battleground of efforts to control the federal deficit is shifting to Social Security, Medicare, and the other giant benefit programs that account for a growing share of spending.
President Bush, in the fiscal 2006 budget that he is to present to Congress on Feb. 7, is expected to resurrect a failed proposal from last year that calls for any increases in benefit programs to be offset by decreases of equal size from other benefit programs.
But congressional Republicans may try to get out ahead of him. Although lawmakers have no firm targets for benefit cuts, at least one influential senator -- Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, the Budget Committee chairman -- is laying plans to institute a procedure that would make it harder for Democrats to block benefit cuts.
Gregg said he believed lawmakers are more serious about deficit reduction than at any time in recent years, because they have heard an earful from voters about runaway red ink.
"This is going back to our roots as the Republican Party," Gregg said. "A lot of the people who support us expect us to be fiscally responsible."
Such talk has advocates for those who rely on the benefits programs on edge. "It is a serious threat," said Richard Kogan, a senior fellow at the liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. "This is going to be a year when people like us are going to be on the defensive."
The procedure favored by Gregg has not been used since 1997. It has the support of the House Budget Committee chairman, Jim Nussle, Republican of Iowa, according to committee communications director Sean Spicer. Every year, Gregg's committee prepares a budget resolution that sets a limit on overall spending and tells other Senate committees how much they can spend on the various programs under their jurisdiction.
Gregg said he planned to attach language to this year's budget resolution instructing the committees with jurisdiction over some of the entitlement programs to cut them. The committees' cutbacks would be packaged in a single "reconciliation" bill, so-called because it reconciles those spending plans with the budget resolution.
The reconciliation procedure could make a big difference in what legislation Congress approves this year.
Senate Democrats can filibuster ordinary legislation, and the Senate's 55 Republicans are not enough to produce the 60 votes necessary to break a filibuster and force legislation to a vote. But congressional budget rules dictate that a reconciliation bill cannot be filibustered.
All Republicans need are 51 of the 100 senators, a simple majority, to pass a reconciliation bill. Gregg's plan would have the effect of allowing senators to approve budget cuts with a simple majority.
The reconciliation maneuver has been in mothballs since 1997, when lawmakers used it to produce a bill to save $160 billion over the following five years. The cuts helped usher in four years of budget surpluses.
Since then, the deficit has ballooned, to $412 billion last year. Gregg, who is new to the Budget Committee's chairmanship this year, said the chief culprit is the growth of the giant "entitlement" programs -- so-called because they entitle people to federal benefits according to their age, income, or some other characteristic.
A quick glance at the budget numbers shows why entitlements loom so large. The biggest, Social Security, will entitle senior citizens and the disabled this year to checks totaling about $510 billion, fully one-fifth of the federal budget. Medicare benefits for the same groups will cost an additional $325 billion.
Compared to that, the programs that Congress can enlarge or reduce annually in its regular spending bills are very small. Economic development grants to poor communities, a traditional target of budget cutters, will cost an estimated $4.6 billion this year. The government will spend about $1.2 billion this year to subsidize passenger railroad travel on Amtrak.
But the bigger a program is, the more people benefit from it -- and have a stake in keeping it intact. Entitlement programs will consume about $6 of every $10 the government spends. By contrast, "discretionary" domestic spending, excluding defense, accounts for less than $2.
Congress has a long history of ineffectiveness when it comes to dealing with entitlements.
In 1985, it passed the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings Act, which mandated a balanced budget by 1991 (later pushed back to 1993). Across-the-board spending cuts were supposed to be triggered if annual deficits exceeded targets along the way.
Twice the spending cuts loomed, and twice they were averted. In 1989, former President Bush signed a spending cut order, but it was rendered moot when Congress passed a deficit-reduction package.
In 1990, rather than face a round of Gramm-Rudman-Hollings cuts, Congress replaced the law with new procedures.
Every time the new rules would have applied, Congress waived them, and they expired in 2002.