Boehner promises Obama GOP cover if he takes first step on entitlement reform

Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has privately assured President Obama that House Republicans will not attack him if he makes a proposal to reform entitlement spending, according to sources familiar with the offer.

Moreover, Boehner has personally promised Obama that he will stand side by side with him to weather the strong political backlash expected from any proposal to cut entitlement costs.

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So far, Obama has not taken Boehner up on the deal, as Democratic strategists have warned the White House not to cut payments from the Social Security trust fund or to reopen the acrimonious debate over healthcare.

Social Security reform has been prominent in behind-the-scenes talks about entitlement spending because it is relatively easy to reduce its cost projections — at least, compared to the complex morass of healthcare policy reform.

Social Security has been known traditionally as the “third rail” of politics, because grappling with the issue is considered as deadly as touching an electrified subway rail.

President George W. Bush saw his post-election political capital plummet in 2005 after Democrats led by Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) excoriated his administration’s proposal to divert a portion of Social Security revenues into private retirement accounts.

Boehner has promised that Republicans will not exploit entitlement reform for political gain if Obama shows leadership on curbing the cost of Social Security and other mandatory spending programs, according to sources familiar with the offer.

Michael Steel, Boehner’s spokesman, declined to comment. “The Speaker does not discuss his private conversations with the president of the United States.”

Earlier this year, during his State of the Union address, Obama called on Congress to put Social Security on solid financial footing, but stopped short of calling for a reduction in benefit payouts.

Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), who is in the midst of negotiating a deficit-reduction package with a bipartisan group of senators, said Republicans would not bite Obama for endorsing entitlement reforms.

“He’s been told by the Speaker that if he stands up to do that, the Speaker will stand up with him,” Coburn said. “The Speaker will go out there with him and say we’ve got to do these things.”

Coburn is in talks with five other senators — two Republicans and three Democrats — to craft a deficit-reduction plan that might include reforms to Social Security and Medicare and Medicaid.

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) said entitlement reform won’t happen this year unless Obama takes a leading role on the issue.

“With regard to our long-term unfunded liabilities — the entitlements — we are waiting for presidential leadership,” McConnell said. “We know, and we’ll say again, that entitlement reform will not be done except on a bipartisan basis with presidential leadership.”

The president might be concerned about getting vilified by his own party and its allies.

Labor unions and liberal advocacy groups have waged a blistering lobbying campaign directed at the White House to steer the president away from reform proposals that would cut benefits.

Vulnerable Democrats up for reelection in 2012, such as Sens. Sherrod Brown (Ohio) and Debbie Stabenow (Mich.), have also seized on the issue as a political life preserver, warning of staunch opposition if Obama and Republicans hatch a deal to reduce Social Security costs.

Brown and Stabenow signed a letter this week lobbying colleagues to support legislation to establish a 60-vote procedural hurdle for any proposal that “would reduce Social Security benefits.”

The last time Congress acted to address a looming shortfall in Social Security — raising the retirement age from 65 to 67 — was in 1983.

“Today, Social Security is strong and faces no such crisis,” the senators wrote. “The Social Security Administration has estimated that Social Security will be able to pay 100 percent of promised benefits to every eligible American for the next 26 years.

“After that, if nothing is done, there will still be enough funding to pay 78 percent of promised benefits,” they added.

But a senior GOP aide said that if Congress does not act to reform the entitlement, it would ensure that workers under the age of 40 would see a 22 percent reduction in benefits.

Democratic pollsters have conducted surveys showing that a strong majority of Democrats, Republicans and independents oppose reductions in Social Security benefits.

Negotiators on Capitol Hill think Social Security would be fairly easy to reform from a policy standpoint, but warn the political dangers make the prospect extremely difficult.

Obama’s fiscal commission last year sketched out a plan for curbing Social Security’s costs that won support from three Democratic members of Congress.

It recommended raising the Social Security retirement age to 68 by 2050 and to 69 by 2075. It also proposed lowering cost-of-living adjustments for beneficiaries and subjecting a higher percentage of earnings to payroll taxes.

Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) and Democratic Whip Dick Durbin (Ill.), members of the commission, voted for the proposal. So did then-Rep. John Spratt (S.C.), the former Democratic chairman of the House Budget panel.

Liberal and labor groups that oppose raising the retirement age argue that a one-year increase would amount to a 6 percent to 7 percent cut in benefits. Liberal lawmakers also argue that it’s easy for policymakers working desk jobs in Washington to call for an increase of the retirement age, but that it’s a daunting prospect for butchers, landscapers, construction workers and others who labor in physically arduous jobs.

Conrad said recently that Social Security reforms should be considered separately from a broader deficit reduction package. He said the nation’s healthcare entitlement programs — such as Medicare and Medicaid — should be examined for further reform and savings.

Coburn has balked at the prospect of taking up Social Security on a separate track, predicting that it will not be reformed if removed from a broader package.

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