WASHINGTON — Even as President Barack Obama prepares his opening bid on long-term debt reduction, the White House wants to keep the focus on jobs and is determined to avoid getting sucked into another budget fight with lawmakers.
Administration officials see the task of attending to deficits as necessary but not necessarily urgent, compared with the need to revive the economy and increase employment.
The White House also sees this as the time to draw sharp contrasts with Republicans, whose public approval ratings are lower than Obama’s.
As a result, when Obama announces at least $2 trillion in deficit reduction measures Monday, he is not expected to offer all the compromises he reached with House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, in July before those talks broke off.
“I would view this as the president’s vision for how we achieve deficit reduction, which makes it inherently different than the sorts of legislative negotiations we were undertaking with the speaker over the summer,” said the White House communications director, Dan Pfeiffer.
The plan represents an economic bookend to the $447 billion in tax cuts and new public works spending that Obama has proposed to as a short-term measure to stimulate the economy and create jobs. He’s submitting it to a special joint committee of Congress given the task of recommending how to reduce deficits by $1.2 trillion to $1.5 trillion over 10 years.
The White House signaled its approach Saturday by highlighting a proposal in the president’s plan that would set a minimum tax rate for taxpayers earning more than $1 million. The measure is designed to prevent millionaires from using tax avoidance schemes to pay lower rates than middle income taxpayers. But the proposal is a certain dead-letter with Republicans, who have pledged to oppose any increase in taxes.
The White House also has said that Obama will not offer any proposals to reduce long-term spending in Social Security, even though Obama had suggested to Boehner reducing annual cost-of-living adjustments for Social Security recipients. The idea drew loud objections from Democrats.
Now Democrats are waiting to see what Obama proposes to do with Medicare, the government health care program for older people.
In his talks with Boehner, Obama was willing to go along with gradually increasing the eligibility age for Medicare beneficiaries from 65 to 67. That idea has run into opposition from Democrats, and the White House was deciding whether or not to leave it in the president’s new deficit plan.
“Potentially raising the retirement age for Medicare is something that deserves a lot of consideration,” said Christina Romer, the former head of Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers. She said such an increase in the eligibility age is more conceivable with Obama’s health care law because guaranteed private health insurance would be available to middle-class early retirees starting in 2014.
Still, an analysis by the nonpartisan Kaiser Family Foundation found that two-thirds of 65- and 66-year-olds would pay more for their new coverage than they would have under Medicare.
Raising the eligibility age is “bad policy and bad politics,” said Nancy Altman, one of the leaders of Strengthen Social Security Campaign, a coalition of advocacy organizations.
“What the president proposes on Monday, especially if the Republicans were to embrace it, would be harder for Democrats in Congress to separate themselves from it,” she said.
Overall, the president’s proposal could help reduce long-term deficits by about $4 trillion.
Under a compromise in early August that averted a threatened government default, Congress agreed to cut nearly $1 trillion from some programs. The president’s proposal would reduce deficits by an extra $2 trillion. On top of that, drawing down military forces in Afghanistan and Iraq is estimated to reduce projected deficits by $1 trillion over 10 years.
Republicans have ridiculed the war savings as gimmicky, but House Republicans included them in their budget proposal this year and Boehner had agreed to count them in his talks with Obama.
In addition to the new minimum tax rate for millionaires, Obama’s proposal will include revenue increases that Obama has identified to pay for his $447 billion jobs plan. Those include limiting deductions for wealthier taxpayers, closing corporate loopholes and eliminating tax subsidies to oil and gas companies. Boehner last week ruled out many of the tax increases Obama has proposed.
William Galston, a former economic adviser to President Bill Clinton, said it would have been better if Obama had presented his jobs plan and his deficit reduction proposal sooner and as one package.
“The president has generated a problem for himself by giving the appearance of not being forthcoming enough with regard to his own fiscal plan,” Galston said. “He feels the need, as he should, to lean forward a bit more. It’s a shame this didn’t happen a whole lot earlier.”
Senior administration officials say that in pushing for his jobs plan, Obama will highlight the need for long-term deficit reduction and the need to achieve it through spending cuts and tax revenue. In so doing, they will try to create sharp differences with Republicans that could serve him in the 2012 presidential campaign.
To that end, some Democrats say it would be foolish for Obama to offer a deficit reduction plan that embraces some of the deals he was prepared to strike with Boehner.
“I don’t think he is bound by the compromise they were working on,” said Rob Shapiro, a former undersecretary of commerce in the Clinton administration Shapiro. “It has always been the president’s position that in a compromise, he was prepared to support entitlement reform if the Republicans were prepared to support revenue increases.”
Still, the White House considers passing the jobs bill far more pressing and Obama has been looking for every opportunity to bring it to the public’s attention.
In his Saturday radio and Internet address, Obama said he would lay down a plan that would show how to pay down the nation’s debt and pay for his employment legislation.
“But right now,” he said, “we’ve got to get Congress to pass this jobs bill.”
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