WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama’s re-election and Democratic gains in Congress were supposed to make it easier for the party to strike a deal with Republicans to resolve the year-end fiscal crisis by providing new leverage. But they could also make it harder as empowered Democrats, including some elected on liberal platforms, resist significant changes in entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare.
As Congress returned Monday, the debate over those programs, which many Democrats see as the core of the party’s identity, was shaping up as the Democratic version of the higher-profile struggle among Republicans over taxes. In failed deficit-reduction talks last year, Obama signaled a willingness to consider substantial changes in the social safety net, including a gradual increase in the eligibility age for Medicare and limits in the growth rate of future Social Security benefits. An urgent question hanging over the new round of deficit talks is which of those changes Obama and congressional Democrats would accept today.
While a potential change in calculating Social Security increases was part of the talks with Speaker John A. Boehner last year, the White House press secretary, Jay Carney, made clear Monday that the administration was not considering changes to the retirement program as part of the deficit talks.
“We should address the drivers of the deficit, and Social Security is not currently a driver of the deficit,” Carney said.
Republicans insist that changes in the major entitlement programs be on the table in exchange for their willingness to accept added tax revenue. But Democrats have given no indication they are willing to consider policy changes or savings of the magnitude demanded by Republicans. The underlying dispute highlights a reason the politics of the deficit are so thorny: Even as many voters say they want Washington to reduce the budget deficit, they oppose many of the benefit cuts and tax increases that could help achieve that goal.
As the negotiations enter a more crucial phase, influential outside advocacy groups like AARP and the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare are weighing in, alerting their members to possible changes in the popular programs. In the current negotiations with Congress over deficits and debt, Obama said, he will take a serious look at how to “reform our entitlements” because “health care costs continue to be the biggest driver of our deficits.”