- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 12, 2013

President Obama opened the door to making significant changes to entitlement programs during a meeting Tuesday with Senate Democrats, though some among the lawmakers quickly warned that they would not go along with benefit cuts or a higher retirement age.

As part of an extended outreach effort to lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, Mr. Obama huddled with his party colleagues for nearly 90 minutes, telling them he would send them a budget the week of April 8 that largely would reflect Democratic priorities and values.

But he also encouraged Democrats to demonstrate a willingness to make some changes to Social Security and Medicare in order to keep the programs solvent and achieve other long-term priorities.

The president pressed his case the same day House Republicans and Senate Democrats released their own budget blueprints that offered vastly different deficit-reduction plans.

The Republican plan, offered by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan would cut spending by $4.6 trillion through 2023 by eliminating core parts of Mr. Obama’s health care law. It also would cut taxes and transform Medicare into a subsidized system of private insurance plans.

The Senate Democratic budget — spearheaded by Sen. Patty Murray, Washington Democrat — would raise $1 trillion in new revenue, while cutting an equal amount in spending over 10 years.

“The way it’s being laid out now, our best chance is to reconcile the two budgets … to give us a framework to move forward which would include some form of grand bargain,” Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin, Maryland Democrat, said after the lunch meeting with Mr. Obama.

Sen. Tom Harkin, Iowa Democrat, said he and Sen. Bernie Sanders, Vermont independent who caucuses with the Democrats, challenged Mr. Obama to only accept changes to entitlement programs that would protect them, not diminish benefits for seniors and the poor.

“We don’t want to start whacking away at Social Security or Medicare and things like that,” he said. “There are ways to [keep them solvent] without putting it into some kind of grand bargain that pulls the rugs out form the elderly, the sick, the needy.”

For instance, Mr. Harkin argued against accepting “chained CPI” a less generous formula for calculating benefits under Social Security that would lead to lower cost-of-living adjustments. Instead, Mr. Harkin advocated a 1 percentage point increase on the Social Security payroll tax over the course of 20 years, raising it from 6.2 percent to 7.2 percent.

He pointed to a poll by the nonpartisan National Academy of Social Insurance released in January showing that roughly 70 percent of Americans support such an increase over 20 years.

Mr. Harkin also asked Mr. Obama not to raise the Medicare eligibility age, something the president had supported in previous efforts to negotiate a grand bargain with House Republicans.

The White House has since said Mr. Obama no longer supports that proposal, but during Tuesday’s meeting, Mr. Harkin said the president stopped short of ruling it out completely.

“He didn’t make a commitment but he seemed to indicate there are other ways to solve the entitlement problems,” Mr. Harkin said.

While most of the questions focused on the budget, the president spoke on a range other topics, congratulating Senate Democrats for making progress on gun control initiatives and immigration. He also took questions on the administration’s drone program, although senators were tight-lipped about which Democrat asked about it.

“The issue was raised about intelligence gathering — and basically the president said they’re doing everything they can to comply with the law and give information to members of the intelligence committee, and he said he would continue to do so,” Mr. Harkin said.

Mr. Obama will head up to Capitol Hill again Wednesday, this time to meet with House Republicans. The meeting is the first the president has had with the House GOP conference since debt talks in summer 2011.

• Susan Crabtree can be reached at scrabtree@washingtontimes.com.

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