July 23, 2009 / 2:27 AM / 10 years ago

Obama: Social Security, Medicare reform on agenda

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama, under pressure over the ballooning U.S. budget deficit, said on Wednesday he is preparing to launch an effort to rein in the escalating costs of the Social Security retirement fund and other popular government programs.

In an interview with the Washington Post, Obama said a new commission may be needed to examine reforms for addressing the deficit and the huge programs that contribute to the flow of red ink.

“I think we’re in a position to be able to, either at the end of this year or early next year, start laying out a broader picture about how we are going to handle entitlements in a serious way,” Obama said.

Entitlement programs include Social Security, as well as Medicare and Medicaid, the federally backed healthcare plans for the elderly and poor.

An aging U.S. population, with millions of “baby boomers” on the cusp of retirement, is swelling the numbers of beneficiaries in those programs.

“The debt and the deficit are deep concerns of mine,” Obama said in a televised press conference that focused on healthcare reform efforts.

With public opinion polls showing people are nervous about the size of the deficit, Obama added, “I am very worried about federal spending.”

The U.S. budget deficit is expected to hit a record $1.8 trillion this year, in part because of a deep recession that has slowed the government’s collection of revenues and big spending to bail out U.S. banks and stimulate the economy.

But most budget experts agree that the biggest fiscal problem Washington faces in the future is the hugely growing cost of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.

Congress has been unwilling to broadly tackle the rising costs, fearing a backlash from voters who rely on the programs.

For several years, some lawmakers have called for a commission — staffed by lawmakers, Treasury Department officials and others — to examine ways to save money and give Congress recommendations that would have to be considered promptly.

“Probably what you end up having to do in terms of structural reforms realistically is you probably have to set up some sort of commission or mechanism that reports back with the prospect of maybe locking in a pledge for action, post-election,” he told The Washington Post. “Everything is going to have to be on the table.”

Some lawmakers, including Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad and ranking Republican Judd Gregg, have embraced the idea of a commission. But House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has expressed reservations, saying Congress should take on the job and write legislation.

Obama said the reform effort “may start with Social Security because that’s, frankly, the easier one.” He also said tax reform should be considered.

Editing by Chris Wilson

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