Social Security Cuts Are Part of Deficit Plan

Associated Press + More

WASHINGTON — Divisions remain within President Barack Obama's deficit commission on politically explosive budget cuts and slashes in Social Security benefits, even as the panel's co-chairmen go public with a revised plan to tame the runaway national debt.

The new plan by co-chairmen Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson, unveiled Wednesday, faces an uphill slog. Resistance is certain, not only because of the idea of raising the Social Security retirement age, but also because of proposed cuts to Medicare, curtailment of tax breaks and a doubling of 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.

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The plan faces opposition 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 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.

Even with all of the sacrifices, the plan would fail to balance the budget — leaving a deficit of $421 billion in 2015 — but would stabilize the national debt at a economically sustainable level compared to the size of the economy.

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 early retirement age would increase from 62 to 64 along the same timetable.

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.

Other recommendations:

— Impose tight "caps" on the agency budgets adopted by Congress each year, including a near-freeze on the Pentagon's budget.

— 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.

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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.