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Originally published January 24, 2011 at 10:05 PM | Page modified January 25, 2011 at 3:35 PM

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Obama draws line in sand on Social Security

President Obama has decided not to endorse his deficit commission's recommendation to increase the retirement age, and otherwise reduce Social Security benefits, cheering liberals and drawing a stark line between the White House and key Republicans in Congress.

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WASHINGTON — President Obama has decided not to endorse his deficit commission's recommendation to increase the retirement age, and otherwise reduce Social Security benefits, cheering liberals and drawing a stark line between the White House and key Republicans in Congress.

The White House has informed Democratic lawmakers and advocates for seniors that Obama will use Tuesday's State of the Union address to emphasize the need to reduce record deficits, but that he will not call for reducing spending on Social Security — the largest federal program.

Liberals, alarmed by Obama's recent shift to the center and his effort to court the business community, applauded the decision, arguing Social Security cuts are neither necessary to reduce deficits nor a wise move politically. Polls show large majorities of Americans — even in households that identify themselves as tea-party backers — oppose cuts to Social Security.

"Most of us would like to see the Democrats remain the strong defenders of Social Security, which they have to be if they want to win the next election," said Roger Hickey, co-director of the liberal Campaign for America's Future.

Administration officials said Obama is unlikely to specifically endorse any of the deficit commission's recommendations Tuesday night but cautioned he is unlikely to rule them off the table, either. On Social Security, for example, he is likely to urge lawmakers to work together to make the program solvent, without going into details, according to congressional sources.

Democratic lawmakers, nonetheless, quickly moved to capitalize on the president's decision by attacking Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, the Budget Committee chairman who will deliver the GOP response to Obama's address Tuesday night.

On a day when the House cleared a key test vote on a resolution that would direct Ryan to cut most federal spending to 2008 levels, Democrats ripped into him and his 2009 proposal for balancing the federal budget, called "A Roadmap for America's Future."

Ryan's plan called for deep cuts in both Social Security and Medicare spending. While Republicans as a group have been loath to embrace it publicly, Democrats argue his role as the voice of the party on fiscal issues suggests Social Security and Medicare soon will be on the GOP chopping block.

"We will be putting a focus on the fact that on spending matters, the Republicans are making judge, jury and executioner out of someone who, according to his Roadmap, wants to privatize Social Security," said New York Sen. Charles Schumer, the No. 3 Democrat.

A spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid went further, calling Ryan "the architect of a plan to end Social Security and Medicare" in a statement that nodded to the House vote. "Republicans are not only endorsing Rep. Ryan's extreme plan but giving him unprecedented power to carry it out," it added.

Ryan's plan includes an option for retirees to invest some of their Social Security taxes in personal investment accounts and a new program that would give older Americans a fixed payment to buy certified private health insurance in place of traditional Medicare. It would not make changes to Social Security and Medicare for people older than 55, and Ryan has argued the changes would preserve the programs for coming generations.

Pressed to take a position on Ryan's "Roadmap" over the weekend, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., acknowledged on NBC's "Meet the Press" that "the direction in which the 'Roadmap' goes is something we need to embrace."

Ryan was not granting interviews Monday. Aides, however, did not shy away from hitting back at Democrats, saying they were the ones potentially endangering the futures of Social Security and Medicare by refusing to consider politically difficult policy options.

Ryan's Social Security position essentially was the view adopted by the bipartisan deficit commission Obama appointed to develop a plan to rein in the debt. In addition to sharp cuts in appropriated programs, a tax-code overhaul and reductions in Medicare spending, a majority of members also endorsed Social Security changes, including increasing the retirement age from 67 to 69 and the early retirement age from 62 to 64 by 2075, reducing checks for well-off retirees and using a less-generous formula to calculate cost-of-living hikes.

All three House Republicans on the panel, including Ryan, voted against the commission's plan, though it echoed many of the changes that Ryan has long championed. At the time, Republicans said they could not support a document that implicitly embraced the new health-care law, which the House voted last week to repeal.

The report did win the support of Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., who called a raising of the retirement age "acceptable to me." That raised hopes among budget hawks that lawmakers at least could agree on a package that would solidify Social Security.

But the rhetorical battle launched Monday suggests such hopes were misplaced.

"... If the president wasn't willing to embrace these sort of changes, he shouldn't have appointed a commission to find solutions. What did he expect?" Robert Bixby, of the nonprofit Concord Coalition, which advocates for balanced budgets, said in an e-mail.

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