WASHINGTON — Despite the political risks in a highly charged election year, House Republicans could push through a budget that proposes major changes to Medicare and Social Security, according to two Oklahoma lawmakers on the House Budget Committee.
Reps. Tom Cole, R-Moore, and James Lankford, R-Oklahoma City, said they expected to craft a budget that addresses entitlement spending, even though House Republicans were hammered politically for a 2011 budget that called for ending Medicare as an open-ended medical insurance plan for seniors.
“This House will make some really tough decisions,” Cole said.
The House and Senate both will be in session this week for the first time this year, and President Barack Obama is to deliver the State of the Union address Tuesday.
The contentious 2011 session had a heavy emphasis on spending and tax cuts, and lawmakers will pick up right where they left off.
First, by the end of February, Congress will have to decide how to finance an extension of the payroll tax cut for the rest of the year.
Also left over from 2011 is the requirement for another $1.2 trillion in cuts that were part of the debt ceiling deal. The congressional supercommittee failed to come up with a plan to make those cuts; if no agreement is reached by the end of the year, the Pentagon will bear nearly half of that $1.2 trillion, on top of nearly $500 billion in spending reductions it must already make over the next 10 years.
To some, the cuts that were part of the debt ceiling deal aren't nearly enough to address the nation's long-term debt problems.
“I'm convinced now more than ever that the biggest issue is not our amount of debt,” Lankford said in an interview. “It's that we have no plan to cut our debt — that we just continue to add to it.”
Gang of Six talking again
Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Muskogee, who spent months last year working on a fiscal plan with a bipartisan group of senators known as the Gang of Six before dropping out to develop his own $9 trillion proposal, said last week that the Gang of Six has been talking again in recent weeks.
Coburn said the senators are discussing a plan that would go well beyond the $1.2 trillion still to be cut.
But he cautioned against any “false hope” that the senators could fashion a broad debt reduction plan that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid would bring up for a vote.
He said he was concerned that signs of an improving economy have removed the immediacy of the problem for some in Congress.
“If we don't send a signal that we're making progress, we're going to get another downgrade on our debt” like the one made by Standard & Poor's in August.
Cole and Lankford expressed little optimism that much progress will be made this year while presidential — and congressional — politics are in full swing.
“My instinct is the year of compromise and great change will be 2013,” Cole said.
Medicare and Social Security
Lankford and Cole said the House budget to be written over the next two months likely would deal with the $1.2 trillion in cuts that the supercommittee failed to specify.
And they said their budget would go beyond that amount to tackle entitlements, even though there is little chance the Senate, which is controlled by Democrats, would consider it.
Lankford said he expects the budget to include a variation of the Medicare plan approved last year. The new one, developed by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin, and Sen. Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, would allow seniors to stay in the traditional Medicare program but opt to take premium support to buy private insurance.
“It's not that dramatically different from what we did last year,” Lankford said. “It still bases the whole thing on premium support.”
Cole, who said Congress must change entitlement programs to make a meaningful impact on the debt, declined to speculate on what proposals might be made for Social Security if that program is included in the budget blueprint.
He noted, though, that there are only a few elements that can be changed, including the age at which benefits can be collected and the formula used to calculate benefits.