Washington Congress should look at the government's vast array of benefit programs -- which include Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid -- in its hunt for budget savings, the incoming chairman of the Senate Budget Committee said Wednesday.
Slowing the growth of the huge benefit programs could bolster them for the looming retirement of the baby boom generation and help bring resurgent federal deficits under control, Sen. Don Nickles, R-Okla., said in an interview with The Associated Press.
"Maybe in the past, Congress has been reluctant to wrestle with some of the biggest challenges. So we allow entitlements to grow automatically, without being cognizant of the fact that, 'Hey, this has some long-term obligations,"' he said.
"I just think everything should be on the table in looking at how you handle these problems," added Nickles, who provided no specifics.
The programs, also known as entitlements because they are paid automatically to people who qualify, currently consume more than half of the $2.1 trillion federal budget.
That proportion is expected to grow steadily, a worry for budget analysts because millions of baby boomers will start retiring later this decade and burden those programs even more.
Nickles said tax cuts that stimulate economic growth and more federal revenue could be an important ingredient of deficit reduction.
President Bush is expected to propose such a package next year.
But Nickles' comments underlined what is expected to be his tightfisted approach to federal spending, perhaps even for programs like Social Security and Medicare, which have long been considered politically untouchable.
"Don't write something that Nickles is going to start slashing this program or that program," said the Oklahoman, one of the Senate's more conservative and pro-business members.
"I'm just trying to step back and say, 'OK, what should we be doing? Is Congress being as energetic as it should be ... , has it been looking at every dollar of spending?' I think we should."
Nickles' comments were also a departure from the recent behavior of lawmakers, who have increased federal benefits for farmers and Medicare providers like doctors and hospitals. There is expected to be a major push next year to create new Medicare coverage for prescription drug benefits, which cost $320 billion under a 10-year GOP plan the House passed last June.
The last major savings enacted in benefit programs came in 1997, when savings from Medicare reimbursements to providers were included in that year's budget-balancing deal between President Clinton and Congress.
Nickles acknowledged that similar collaboration would be needed for any new effort to pare savings from benefit programs, saying, "To do entitlement reform requires bipartisan cooperation."
But Democrats were already voicing skepticism Wednesday.
"I will be surprised if he can move anything of any significance," said Rep. John Spratt, D-S.C., the top Democrat on the House Budget Committee. "These are tough issues to take on. They dwarf anything else."