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Debts, deficits — once a focus — fade from agenda

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The past three years of confrontations have focused almost exclusively on those aspects of the budget that require annual approval — the "discretionary" portion of the budget. Untouched have been the huge benefit programs, which are most responsible for the debt.

"The tragic part of it is, all the anguish we’re going through isn’t dealing with two-thirds of the American budget," said former Sen. Alan Simpson, the Wyoming Republican who co-chaired a presidential debt commission created in 2010.

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Politically, Social Security and Medicare are much tougher to tackle. While the public does demand fiscal discipline, it often rebels when spending reductions affect them. Consider the GOP letter demanding restoration of Medicare Advantage cuts. Or a recent letter from 16 Senate liberal Democrats calling for Obama not to include in his budget any provision that would reduce increases in Social Security benefits to future retirees. As it turns out, Obama will not.

"You’re never going to hit anybody because they’ll roll in and roll you over," Simpson said.

Associated Press writer Donna Cassata contributed to this report.

Copyright 2014 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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