Obama budget fails to curb entitlements, GOP says

But leaders don’t propose specific cuts

House Speaker John Boehner said everything is on the table in dealing with program reductions and Republicans ‘will not punt’ when they propose their budget alternative in April. House Speaker John Boehner said everything is on the table in dealing with program reductions and Republicans ‘will not punt’ when they propose their budget alternative in April.
By Theo Emery
Globe Staff / February 16, 2011

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WASHINGTON — Republicans yesterday accused President Obama and Democrats in Congress of failing to rein in entitlement programs that make up the bulk of federal spending — but said they weren’t ready to lay out their own proposed cuts to programs such as Social Security and Medicare.

House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, after criticizing the budget that Obama released on Monday, said “everything is on the table’’ but would not specify what Republicans would propose when they submit their 2012 budget in April.

“Republicans will not punt,’’ he said. “We will put forward a budget that deals with the big challenges that face our country.’’

Obama, meanwhile, said at a White House press conference that an “adult conversation’’ was needed in which “everybody says here’s what’s important and here’s how we’re going to pay for it.’’ The health care legislation that Congress passed last year would reduce the debt by $250 billion over the next decade, but changing entitlements will require both parties to come to an agreement, he said.

“I’m confident we can get Social Security done in the same way that Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill were able to get it done: by parties coming together, making some modest adjustments,’’ Obama said, referring to the former Republican president and Democratic speaker of the House, who worked together in the 1980s on entitlement changes. “I think we can avoid slashing benefits, and I think we can make it stable and stronger for not only this generation, but for the next generation.’’

The back-and-forth between party leaders highlighted the difficult path ahead not only for approving a budget but also for agreeing on a long-range vision for reducing the nation’s long-term debt. Obama’s budget did not provide specific guidelines about how to deal with the growth of Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security.

Representative James P. McGovern, a Worcester Democrat, predicted a pitched battle over next year’s spending, including Medicare and Social Security.

“If this is a coming attraction of what the budget is going to be like, we can expect a real horror movie,’’ he said, referring to the brewing fight over a GOP proposal to make deep cuts to the current budget. “I think everybody understands that we need to deal with the issue of entitlements, but the question is how do you deal with it.’’

Republicans said the president did not incorporate major recommendations of his own debt reduction panel for cutting entitlements. The bipartisan panel last year made a series of recommendations to cut spending and reduce debt that included changing how Medicare reimburses doctors.

For Social Security, which is currently paying out more than it takes in, the commission recommended changing the benefit formula, gradually raising the retirement age, and raising the cap on the amount of income that’s exposed to the federal payroll tax.

Driven by two wars, the recession, and “fiscally irresponsible’’ policies, in the words of the commission, federal debt has risen from a third of gross domestic product to 62 percent of GDP in 2010, and will eventually reach 90 percent of GDP in 2020. By 2025, tax revenues will go entirely toward Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, and debt payments, according to the commission.

Henry J. Aaron, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said much of the politicking over entitlements is often “wrong-footed from the beginning’’ because entitlements are often lumped together without regard to differences.

While debate typically revolves around Medicare and Medicaid on the one hand, and Social Security on the other, he said, in reality a broad range of other programs such as food stamps, housing vouchers, and disability payments also need to be part of the equation. When coupled with pledges by politicians not to raise taxes, it is difficult to cut the deficit deeply, he said.

“There’s a disconnect between the reality of the problem and the willingness of officials to support legislation that would deal with the deficit on a timely basis,’’ he said.

Theo Emery can be reached at