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Obama budget: Trim Social Security, tax wealthy

Published April 10, 2013 9:02 am

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

WASHINGTON • President Barack Obama sent Congress a $3.8 trillion spending blueprint on Wednesday that strives to achieve a "grand bargain" to tame runaway deficits, raising taxes on the wealthy and trimming popular benefit programs including Social Security and Medicare.

The president's budget projects deficit reductions of $1.8 trillion over the next decade, achieved with nearly $1 trillion in higher taxes, reductions in payments to Medicare providers and cutbacks in the cost-of-living adjustments paid to millions of recipients in Social Security and other government programs. Obama's budget would negate nearly $1.2 trillion in automatic spending cuts, replacing some of those with smaller reductions of his own.

The president's proposed spending for the 2014 fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1, would rise 2.5 percent from this year.

The budget projects a deficit for the current year of $973 billion, falling to $744 billion in 2014. Those would be the first deficits below $1 trillion since 2008. Even with the president's deficit reductions, the budget projects the red ink would total $5.3 trillion over the next 10 years.

The plan includes a compromise proposal that Obama offered to House Speaker John Boehner during "fiscal cliff" negotiations last December. Boehner walked away from those talks because of his objections to raising taxes on the wealthy.

By including proposals to trim Social Security and Medicare, the government's two biggest benefit programs, Obama is hoping to entice Republicans to consider tax increases.

"I have already met Republicans more than halfway, so in the coming days and weeks I hope that Republicans will come forward and demonstrate that they're really as serious about the deficit and debt as they claim to be," Obama said in the White House Rose Garden.

But instead of moving Congress nearer a grand bargain, Obama's proposals so far have managed to anger both the Republicans, who are upset by higher taxes, and Democrats unhappy about cuts to Social Security benefits.

The White House highlighted $580 billion in tax increases on the rich over 10 years, which would be obtained primarily by limiting deductions the wealthy can take. But the figure climbs closer to $1 trillion after adding in a 94-cents-per-pack increase in taxes on cigarettes, slower inflation adjustments to income tax brackets, elimination of oil and gas production subsidies, an increase in the estate tax and a new "financial crisis responsibility" fee on banks.

Responding to the budget, Boehner said Republicans were unwilling to go beyond the $660 billion in higher taxes approved as part of the "fiscal cliff" deal. "The president got his tax hikes in January. We don't need to be raising taxes on the American people," Boehner said.

House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., said Obama's budget "doesn't break new ground. It goes over old ground. It takes more from families to spend more in Washington." Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell dismissed Obama's budget as "not a serious plan. For the most part, just another left-wing wish list."

Maya MacGuineas, president of the Committee for a Responsible Budget, a bipartisan group that promotes deficit reduction, praised Obama for retaining the deficit reduction elements of his December offer to Boehner in his new budget. She said this showed Obama was "still serous about fiscal reform."

Briefing reporters on the budget, Alan Krueger, chairman of the president's Council of Economic Advisers, said the economic growth assumptions for this year are a bit more optimistic than those of some private forecasters. He said the administration's forecast was done in November and assumed that the March 1 across-the-board spending cuts would not occur.

The president's spending and tax plan is two months late. The administration blamed the delay on the lengthy negotiations at the end of December and then fights over the resulting March 1 automatic spending cuts.

The Obama budget proposal will join competing outlines already approved by the Republican-controlled House and the Democratic-run Senate.

Obama's plan is not all about budget cuts. It also includes an additional $50 billion in spending to fund infrastructure investments, including $40 billion in a "Fix It First" effort to provide immediate money to repair highways, bridges, transit systems and airports nationwide.

Obama's budget would also provide $1 billion to launch a network of 15 manufacturing innovation institutes across the country, and it earmarks funding to support high-speed rail projects.

The president's plan to establish a program to offer preschool to all 4-year-olds from low- and moderate-income families would be financed by the higher tax on tobacco, which the administration said would raise $78 billion over a decade.

The administration said its proposals to increase spending would not increase the deficit but rather would be paid for either by increasing taxes or making deeper cuts to other programs.

Among the proposed cuts, the administration wants to trim defense spending by an additional $100 billion and domestic programs by an extra $100 billion over the next decade. However, those cuts would actually be less than the automatic spending cuts they would replace in the "sequester" that would have trimmed government spending by $1.2 trillion over 10 years. Obama's budget, if adopted, would eliminate future sequester reductions. Those cuts began taking effect on March 1 with an initial $85 billion in cuts.

The Obama budget proposes cutting $400 billion from Medicare and other health care programs over a decade. The cuts would come in a variety of ways, including negotiating better prescription drug prices and asking wealthy seniors to pay more.

It would obtain an additional $200 billion in savings by scaling back farm subsidies and trimming federal retiree programs.

The most sweeping proposal in Obama's budget is a switch in the way the government calculates the annual cost-of-living adjustments for the millions of recipients of Social Security and other benefits. The new method would take into account changes that occur when people substitute goods rising in price with less expensive products. It results in a slightly lower annual reading for inflation.

The switch in the inflation formula would cut spending on government benefit programs by $130 billion over 10 years, although the administration said it planned to protect the most vulnerable, including the very elderly. The change would also raise about $100 billion in higher taxes because the current CPI formula is used to adjust tax brackets each year. A lower inflation measure would mean more money taxed at higher rates.

In the tax area, Obama's budget would also implement the "Buffett Rule" requiring that households with incomes of more than $1 million pay at least 30 percent of their income in taxes.

Congress and the administration have already secured $2.5 trillion in deficit reduction over the next 10 years through budget reductions and with the end-of-year tax increase on the rich. Obama's plan would bring that total to $4.3 trillion over 10 years.

It is unlikely that Congress will get down to serious budget negotiations until this summer, when the government once again will be confronted with the need to raise the government's borrowing limit or face the prospect of a first-ever default on U.S. debt.

As part of the administration's effort to win over Republicans, Obama will have a private dinner at the White House with about a dozen GOP senators Wednesday night. The budget is expected to be a primary topic, along with proposed legislation dealing with gun control and immigration.

Early indications are that the budget negotiations will be intense. Republicans have been adamant in their rejection of higher taxes, arguing that the $660 billion increase on top earners that was part of the late December agreement to prevent the government from going over the "fiscal cliff" is all the new revenue they will tolerate.

The administration maintains that Obama's proposal is balanced with the proper mix of spending cuts and tax increases.

Obama has presided over four straight years of annual deficits totaling more than $1 trillion, reflecting in part the lost revenue during a deep recession and the government's efforts to get the economy going again and stabilize the financial system.

The budget plan already passed by the GOP-controlled House projects reaching balance in 2023, a year in which Obama's proposal projects a $439 billion deficit. The budget outline approved by the Democratic-controlled Senate tracks more closely to the Obama proposal, although it does not include changes to the cost-of-living formula for Social Security. —

Defense budget counts on cuts Congress rejected

Call it the wishing and hoping defense budget.

President Barack Obama's 2014 blueprint assumes that Washington reverses the automatic budget cuts that have become a daily reality for the military. It also counts on Congress embracing the domestic base closings, increased health care fees and weapons terminations that lawmakers resoundingly rejected in recent years.

The proposal unveiled Wednesday calls for a base Pentagon budget of $526.6 billion — $52 billion more than the $475 billion level established by the across-the-board spending cuts set in the budget agreement between Obama and congressional Republicans in August 2011.

The budget plan includes a $88.5 billion placeholder for additional war costs in Afghanistan as Obama decides on the pace of the drawdown of American combat troops next year.. A glance at key Obama budget provision

President Barack Obama's 2014 budget includes a key change in the way the government measures inflation. If adopted, the chained Consumer Price Index would have far-reaching effects because so many programs are adjusted each year based on year-to-year changes in consumer prices.

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How it would work:

The new measure would show a lower level of inflation than the more widely used Consumer Price Index.

It assumes that as prices rise, consumers would turn to lower-cost alternatives, reducing the amount of inflation they experience. For example, if the price of beef increases while the price of pork does not, people will buy more pork rather than pay the higher beef prices.

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What it would save:

The change would reduce the federal budget deficit by $340 billion over the next decade, according to congressional estimates. However, the White House has said it wants the adjustments to include protections for "vulnerable" recipients, so the savings could be less.

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How it's perceived:

The proposed change is unpopular among many Democrats in Congress and advocates for seniors who complain that it would disproportionately hit low- and middle-income families.

It's popular among budget hawks because it cuts benefits and increases taxes gradually, in ways that might not be readily apparent to most Americans. The savings, however, become substantial over time.

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What would be cut:

Among the spending cuts that would result from the change over the next decade:

— Social Security: $127 billion.

— Federal retirement programs for military and civilian workers and Supplemental Security Income: $38 billion.

— Medicare and Medicaid: $29 billion.

On average, annual increases in Social Security payments, government pensions and veterans' benefits would be about 0.3 percentage points smaller each year, according to the chief actuary for the Social Security Administration.