BY O.J. EARLY
Tennessee U.S. Sens. Bob Corker and Lamar Alexander have proposed a plan to reduce federal entitlement spending by nearly $1 trillion in exchange for an equal increase in the federal debt ceiling.
Speaking to members of the news media on Friday, the two Republican senators urged President Barack Obama and the Congress to take aim at federal entitlement reform after addressing the impending expiration of the Bush-era tax cuts.
Both GOP lawmakers said the soon-to-expire federal debt ceiling provides an opportunity to reform Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.
(In a related development, President Obama announced Friday evening that an agreement between Democrats and Republicans on a way to avoid the so-called "fiscal cliff" had not yet been reached.
(Without such an agreement, the Bush-era tax cuts are due to expire on Jan. 1, triggering higher taxes for many Americans and dramatic federal budget cuts, especially in defense.
(Some economists believe that these actions would trigger another recession.
(Please see related story, Page A-1.)
Corker and Alexander noted that much of the political conversation in recent weeks in Washington and the rest of the country has focused on the possibility that the nation's economy would "go over the fiscal cliff," as well as on individual income taxes.
Talks should soon shift, however, to what both senators are calling the potential "Medicare fiscal cliff."
"When the dust settles and everything is said and done, federal individual income taxes are not going to go up on almost all Americans next year," Alexander said. "That's the most important point for Americans to know."
For now, GOP legislators have given up on major entitlement reform's being included in the current fiscal cliff negotiations with President Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).
However, a new battle between many in the two parties looms over what is certain to be an effort by the president to increase the federal debt limit.
FEATURES OF PLAN
Some of the major aspects of Corker and Alexander's dollar-for-dollar plan include:
* changing Medicare by creating competing private options that allow seniors a greater choice of healthcare plans;
* gradually raising the Social Security retirement age, and
* using the "chained CPI" (consumer price index) formula to measure cost-of-living adjustments.
The hope, the two senators said, is that nearly $1 trillion in entitlements cuts would be made. In exchange, Republicans in Congress would agree to raise the debt limit by the same $1 trillion amount.
"This bill basically over the next 10 years will produce about $1 trillion in savings and reforms to cause these programs to be solvent over the long haul so future seniors will have the opportunity to enjoy these benefits," Corker said.
Alexander added: "Taking these two provisions together over the next few weeks would provide certainty for the economy. It would be the linchpin for a budget agreement that would get the economy going again."
FISCAL CLIFF OUTLOOK
In regard to the fiscal cliff, some anti-tax conservatives applaud the idea of going over the cliff as opposed to any sort of tax increase. But that's not an idea that Corker is willing to sign-off on, he said.
"I don't see any advantage in dealing with something later that you can deal with now," Tennessee's junior senator stated.
Alexander predicted that a compromise would be reached this weekend between the White House and Congress to avoid the fiscal cliff.