WASHINGTON (AP) -- Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said Wednesday that cost-cutting in large government benefit programs is possible "as long as you eliminate Social Security" from the discussion, registering opposition to prominent proposals to hold down spending.
"Social Security has contributed not a single penny to the deficit. So we can talk about entitlements as long as you eliminate Social Security," said Reid, D-Nev. "Because Social Security is not part of the problem we have in America with the deficit."
Reid's spokesman, Jon Summers, said the Nevada Democrat opposes any cuts for Social Security recipients, as well as any reduction in benefits promised to future retirees. He also rejects an increase in the age at which workers can begin to draw full Social Security retirement, Summers said, because "he sees that as a benefit cut."
Senior lawmakers in both parties have talked in general terms of seeking a broad deficit-reduction agreement later this year. Reining in the growing costs of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid is widely cited as essential to any such compromise.
"We'll have to bring down health care costs further, including in programs like Medicare and Medicaid, which are the single biggest contributor to our long-term deficits," President Barack Obama said at a news conference on Wednesday.
"I believe we should strengthen Social Security for future generations, and I think we can do that without slashing benefits or putting current retirees at risk," Obama said.
Obama omitted any major changes to the three big benefit programs when he released his 2012 budget earlier in the week, but a presidential deficit-reduction commission floated several late last year. Among them was an increase in the age for full retirement benefits under Social Security and steps to slow the growth of future benefits.
Medicaid is a state-federal program that provides health care to lower-income people. Social Security and Medicare, in particular, are politically sensitive, providing retirement and health benefits for millions of seniors.
Any political party that seeks major changes unilaterally leaves itself open to attack, and Obama noted at his news conference that in the past, significant changes to Social Security were bipartisan.
"We're waiting for presidential leadership," Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said on Wednesday. "We know and will say again that entitlement reform will not be done except on a bipartisan basis with presidential leadership."
On Tuesday, House Republicans issued a statement that said, "Our budget will lead where the president has failed, and it will include real entitlement reforms."
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)