Minnesotans in Congress battle Obama over budget

  • Article by: KEVIN DIAZ , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 10, 2013 - 5:46 AM

Ellison, Franken lead fight against cuts in Social Security and Medicare.

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Rep. Rick Nolan, D-Minn., spoke Tuesday to protesters rallying outside the White House against President Obama’s budget proposal.

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– Facing ever more urgent warnings about the exploding costs of federal pension and health programs, President Obama is expected to include long-sought reductions in Social Security and Medicare when he rolls out his budget Wednesday.

But while the president’s budget may offer substantial overtures to Republicans, who long have pressed for entitlement cuts, the White House faces significant opposition from some Minnesota Democrats and others in Congress who are positioning themselves as defenders of the sick and elderly.

Chief among them is U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, chief deputy Democratic Whip and co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, which is in the forefront of liberal efforts to block any proposals that would lower cost-of-living increases and raise age requirements.

Another prominent Minnesota voice is U.S. Sen. Al Franken, who has warned against budget savings that might “shift costs to our seniors, or parents raising children with disabilities.”

That wariness in Minnesota and elsewhere — combined with uniform GOP opposition to any new tax revenues — could derail even the faintest hopes of reaching an elusive “grand” budget bargain this year, or in the foreseeable future.

The political standoff is playing out against government reports projecting insolvency for Medicare by 2024, with Social Security following suit in 2033. Thereafter, without changes in the law, payroll taxes would cover only between 75 percent and 87 percent of benefits, creating a growing gap.

The longer that lawmakers put off a fix, the programs’ trustees say, the more intractable the problem becomes. “This year we sound the same warning, but with greater urgency,” they said in their last report in November.

But those warnings have been overwhelmed by political sparring over the month-old sequester budget cuts, which cover a smaller slice of the government spending pie.

Social Security and Medicare, by contrast, account for more than a third of federal expenditures and face a tsunami of new federal outlays as the bulk of the aging baby boom generation settles into retirement.

White House officials have signaled that Obama will seek a budget compromise by limiting tax deductions for the wealthy while trimming inflation increases for Social Security and other federal programs. The savings would be part of a broader plan to reduce the federal government deficit by $1.8 trillion over 10 years.

The proposal for the budget year beginning Oct. 1 is expected to build on previous White House offers to House Speaker John Boehner during last year’s “fiscal cliff” negotiations, in which Republicans acquiesced to $600 billion in tax increases for upper-income earners.

But the proposed bargain already is hitting turbulence among labor and liberal groups that support Democrats. Among the most vocal critics is Ellison, who recently issued a statement with Progressive Caucus co-chair Rep. Raul Grijalva of Arizona, saying “we should not try to bargain for [Republicans’] goodwill with policies that hurt our seniors, especially since they’ve been unwilling to reduce tax loopholes for millionaires and wealthy corporations by so much as a dime.”

Ellison recently helped lead 107 House Democrats in a letter to Obama opposing any benefit cuts to Social Security, Medicare or Medicaid. Among the signers was Minnesota Democrat Rick Nolan, who helped deliver a petition to the White House on Tuesday opposing the proposed cuts. Ellison cites a report by the New America Foundation arguing that Social Security should be expanded rather than cut to offset “rapidly disappearing” private pension plans and 401(k)s, which have not produced the retirement savings many Americans will need.

Retirement age could rise

Liberal groups also are fighting proposals to raise the Medicare eligibility age to 67 from 65 and to increase the Social Security full retirement age to 69 from 67. Among those most hurt are not only the poor and the elderly, they say, but veterans as well.

“Contrary to popular belief, not everyone is living longer or is able to work into their late 60s,” said Max Richtman, president of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare.

Ellison and Franken argue that Social Security does not contribute to the nation’s fiscal problems because the trust fund currently has a surplus.

But some budget experts note that worker payroll taxes no longer cover current benefits. The fund is flush only because it counts as assets money owed from past government borrowing to finance other types of spending. Without those general revenue funds, which contribute to the annual federal deficits, the trust fund would be unable to meet its pension obligations.

  • related content

  • Differing federal budget proposals

    Tuesday April 9, 2013

    Obama proposalThe plan: President Obama’s 2014 budget proposes spending cuts and revenue increases that would result in $1.8 trillion in...

  • Obama proposal

    The plan: President Obama’s 2014 budget proposes spending cuts and revenue increases that would result in $1.8 trillion in deficit reductions over 10 years. That figure would replace $1.2 trillion in automatic spending cuts that are poised to take effect over the next 10 years, thus delivering a net increase in deficit reduction of $600 billion.

    Deficit reduction: Counting reductions and higher taxes that Congress and Obama have approved since 2011, the 2014 budget would contribute to $4.3 trillion in total deficit reduction by 2023.

    Entitlements: A key feature is a revised inflation adjustment called “chained CPI.” This new formula would effectively curb annual increases in a broad swath of government programs but would have its biggest impact on Social Security. His proposed changes would mean a cut in Social Security benefits of nearly $1,000 a year for an average 85-year-old, smaller cuts for younger retirees.

    Tax revenue: It calls for additional tax revenue, primarily by placing a 28 percent cap on deductions and other tax exclusions. That plan would affect wealthy taxpayers as would a new administration proposal to place limits on tax-preferred retirement accounts for millionaires and billionaires.

    Senate Democrats

    The plan: Senate Democrats propose raising nearly $1 trillion in new taxes and cutting $1 trillion from projected spending. The plan would add $5.2 trillion to the federal deficit over 10 years, about $1.8 trillion less than currently projected.

    Deficit reduction: Senate budget chief Patty Murray estimates it would reduce deficits by a total of $1.85 trillion over 10 years, putting the deficit at $566 billion in 2023. About $960 billion of that is intended to replace the automatic cuts that went into effect on March 1.

    Entitlements and spending: Most Democrats reject cuts to Social Security and Medicare benefits. Their plan seeks to reduce projected spending by an estimated $975 billion — $493 billion in domestic spending; $240 billion in defense spending; and $242 billion in interest savings. Overall, it would increase spending by 4.7 percent a year. It would include a $100 billion stimulus for road and bridge repairs, as well as worker training.

    Taxes: It would increase revenue by $975 billion through eliminating and curtailing tax breaks for the wealthy and corporations. The plan would end aggressive offshore tax planning, special depreciation rules for corporate jet owners and favorable tax rates for hedge fund managers.

    House Republicans

    The plan: House Republicans would slice $4.6 trillion over 10 years from projected spending, largely by repealing President Obama’s health-care law and cutting Medicaid.

    Deficit reduction: Aided by additional revenue from the year-end fiscal cliff deal, the plan — written by Rep. Paul Ryan — would balance the budget, producing a small surplus by 2023.

    Entitlements: The centerpiece of the GOP plan would be to cut Medicaid $757 billion by converting the program into a voucher-like program for the next generation of seniors, those younger than 55. When they become eligible, at age 65, those seniors will be offered a voucher that can be applied either to the purchase of private health insurance or toward the cost of Medicare, though the voucher may not cover all the costs of the policy. It exempts the Pentagon and Social Security beneficiaries from cuts.

    No tax increases: It would add no additional tax revenue and reduce spending by $5 trillion over a decade relative to projections from the Congressional Budget Office. As a result, by 2023, Ryan estimates there would be no deficit at all. But he assumes one very unlikely scenario — the repeal of major parts of health reform, from which Ryan counts nearly $2 trillion for deficit reduction.

    news services

    Obama’s budget

    • The plan: The president’s 2014 budget proposes $25 billion in spending cuts, along with revenue increases, for $1.8 trillion in deficit reductions over 10 years.

    • Entitlements: A revised inflation adjustment called “chained CPI” would mean a cut in Social Security benefits.

    • Deficit reduction: Counting reductions and higher taxes now in place, $4.3 trillion in total deficit reduction by 2023.

    • Tax revenue: Increases mainly from wealthy taxpayers and 28 percent cap on deductions and other tax exclusions.

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