Social Security Cuts Are Part of Deficit Reduction Plan

December 1, 2010 - 8:45 AM

Washington (AP) - The members of President Barack Obama's deficit commission will begin to go on the record Wednesday as they debate politically explosive budget cuts, including proposals to lower Social Security benefits, in a revised plan to wrestle the national debt under control.

The new plan by panel co-chairmen Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson, to be unveiled Wednesday, faces an uphill slog because of proposals to raise the Social Security retirement age and lower cost-of-living increases, cut Medicare costs, curtail a huge assortment of tax breaks, like the deduction for mortgage interest, and almost double the federal tax on a gallon of gasoline.

Though the plan appears unlikely to win enough bipartisan support from the panel to be approved for a vote in Congress this year or next, Bowles has already declared victory, saying he and Simpson have at least succeeded in initiating an "adult conversation" in the country about the pain it will take to cut the deficit.

The plan faces resistance from many commission members. House Republicans appear uniformly against tax increases, while liberal Democrats like Jan Schakowsky of Illinois appear unlikely to be able to accept big cuts in federal programs for seniors.

Obama named the commission in hopes of bringing a deficit-fighting plan up for a vote in Congress this year, but it appears to be falling well short of the 14-vote bipartisan supermajority needed.

A new version of the plan, obtained by The Associated Press on Tuesday, makes mostly minor changes to a draft that whipped up enormous controversy when unveiled earlier this month. Some domestic spending cuts are modestly higher than previously proposed, and health care savings from overhauling the medical malpractice system would reap less than proposed earlier this month.

Unlike their original proposal, Bowles and Simpson stop short of calling for caps on medical malpractice awards. Instead they recommend changes in how awards are made.

But other proposals remain the same. Among them are a gradual increase in the Social Security retirement age to 68 by 2050 and 69 by 2075, using a less generous cost-of-living adjustment for the programs and increasing the cap on income subject to Social Security taxes.

The plan also retains a 15-cent-a-gallon increase on gasoline, a three-year freeze on federal worker pay and the elimination of 200,000 workers from the federal payroll through attrition.

The proposal obtained by the AP was a draft that was still undergoing changes Tuesday evening.

Other recommendations:

-- Eliminate congressional pet spending projects known as "earmarks."

-- Reduce the corporate income tax rate to 28 percent from 35 percent and stop taxing the overseas profits of U.S.-based multinational corporations.

-- Overhaul individual income taxes and corporate taxes, giving Congress the choice of reducing the top rate to as low as 23 percent and no higher than 29 percent. The lower the rate, the fewer the tax credits and deductions that would be available to taxpayers.

Under one scenario proposed by Bowles and Simpson, taxpayers would face three tax brackets of 12 percent, 21 percent and 28 percent. Taxpayers would still be able to claim an earned income tax credit and child tax credit as well as all standard deductions and exemptions. Capital gains and dividends would be taxed at ordinary income tax rates. Taxpayers could claim a mortgage interest deduction up to $500,000, but only on their primary residence.

If Congress does not undertake a comprehensive overhaul of the tax system by 2013, the plan calls for a "fail-safe" provision that would trigger across-the-board reductions in tax breaks, designed to raise revenue by $80 billion in 2015 and $180 billion in 2020.

Bowles was White House chief of staff when former President Bill Clinton negotiated a balanced budget plan in 1997; Simpson is a former GOP senator from Wyoming.

Only Bowles and Simpson are guaranteed to support the plan when the panel votes. None of the 12 House members and senators named by Obama have committed to the proposals, though Bowles and Simpson could pick up support from nonelected deficit hawks like Democrat Alice Rivlin and Honeywell International's chief executive, David Cote, a Republican, who won't have to defend themselves to voters. Republican senators seem more likely to vote for the plan than their rigidly anti-tax increase House counterparts.

"I don't know if we're going to get two votes or five votes or 10 votes or 14 votes," Bowles told reporters. "There are enough reasons to vote 'no' in this plan for anybody to vote 'no.'"

A supermajority of 14 of the 18 panel members would have to approve recommendations for a possible vote in the lame-duck session of Congress. That seems out of reach, but Bowles says it's just as important to have jump-started a national debate on what it'll really take to bring the deficit under control.

"Our goal in this whole process has been really simple," Bowles said. "It's basically been to start an adult conversation here in Washington about the dangers of this debt and the deficits we are running."

He added, "The era of deficit denial in Washington is over."