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House GOP plan would cut Medicare, Social Security to balance budget

House Republicans released a budget proposal Tuesday, June 19, that would balance in nine years - but only by making large cuts to entitlement programs, including Medicare and Social Security, that President Donald Trump has vowed not to touch.

The House Budget Committee is aiming to pass the blueprint later this week, but that may be as far as it goes this midterm election year. It's not clear that GOP leaders will put the document on the House floor for a vote, and even if it were to pass the House, the budget would have little impact on actual spending levels.

Nonetheless the budget serves as an expression of Republicans' priorities at a time of rapidly rising deficits and debt. Although the nation's growing indebtedness has been exacerbated by the GOP's own policy decisions - including the new tax law, which most analyses say will add at least $1 trillion to the debt - Republicans on the Budget Committee said they felt a responsibility to put the nation on a sounder fiscal trajectory.

"The time is now for our Congress to step up and confront the biggest challenge to our society," said House Budget Chairman Rep. Steve Womack (R-Ark.). "There is not a bigger enemy on the domestic side than the debt and deficits."

The Republican budget confronts this enemy by taking a whack at entitlement spending. Lawmakers of both parties agree that so-called mandatory spending that is not subject to Congress's annual appropriations process is becoming unsustainable. But Trump has largely taken it off the table by refusing to touch Medicare or Social Security, and Democrats have little interest in addressing it except as part of a larger deal including tax hikes - the sort of "Grand Bargain" that eluded former President Barack Obama.

The House Republican budget, entitled "A Brighter American Future," would remake Medicare by giving seniors the option of enrolling in private plans that compete with traditional Medicare, a system of competition designed to keep costs down but dismissed by critics as an effort to privatize the program. Along with other changes, the budget proposes to squeeze $537 billion out of Medicare over the next decade.

The budget would transform Medicaid, the federal-state health-care program for the poor, by limiting per-capita payments or allowing states to turn it into a block-grant program - the same approach House Republicans took in their legislation that passed last year to repeal the Affordable Care Act (the repeal effort died in the Senate). Changes to Medicaid and other health programs would account for $1.5 trillion in savings.

Social Security comes in for more modest cuts of $4 billion over the decade, which the budget projects could be reached by eliminating concurrent receipt of unemployment benefits and Social Security disability insurance.

The budget also proposes a number of other cost-saving measures, some of which could prove unpopular if implemented, such as adding more work requirements for food stamp and welfare recipients and requiring federal employees - including members of Congress - to contribute more to their retirement plans. It relies on rosy economic growth projections and proposes using a budgetary mechanism to require other congressional committees to come up with a combined $302 billion in unspecified deficit reduction.

Democrats were quick to criticize the GOP proposal.

"The 2019 Republican budget scraps any sense of responsibility to the American people and any obligation to being honest," said Rep. John Yarmuth of Kentucky, the top Budget Committee Democrat. "Its repeal of the Affordable Care Act and extreme cuts to health care, retirement security, anti-poverty programs, education, infrastructure, and other critical investments are real and will inflict serious harm on American families."

Story by Erica Werner. Werner has worked at The Washington Post since 2017, covering Congress with a focus on economic policy. Previously, she worked at the Associated Press for more than 17 years, starting in the Los Angeles bureau and going on to cover the White House and Congress.

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