July 15, 2011 -- President Obama said today he's open to "modest modifications" to federal entitlement programs that would require some seniors to pay more for benefits, if the changes are included as part of a compromise plan to reduce the deficit.
"I've said that means-testing on Medicare, meaning people like myself,…you can envision a situation where, for somebody in my position, me having to pay a little bit more on premiums or co-pays or things like that would be appropriate," the president said in response to a question from ABC News. "That could make a difference."
The president said any negotiation over changes to Medicare, however, should make sure current beneficiaries "as much as possible are not affected" and reiterated his opposition to a more sweeping transformation of the program as favored by some Republicans.
"I view Social Security and Medicare as the most important social safety nets that we have," he said. "I think it is important for them to remain as social insurance programs that give people some certainty and reliability in their golden years. But it turns out that making some modest modifications in those entitlements can save you trillions of dollars. And it's not necessary to completely revamp the program."
Obama's comments came during his second White House press conference this week on the negotiations over raising the country's debt limit while simultaneously approving a deficit reduction package.
Talks have been held at the White House for each of the past five days, during which the parties have spent roughly eight hours together to try to reach a deal, so far to no avail.
But the president said he remains optimistic that a "big deal" between Republicans and Democrats can still be reached.
"I am still pushing for us to achieve a big deal," Obama told reporters as leaders of both parties huddled with their caucuses on Capitol Hill to mull over a path to a deal.
"We are obviously running out of time," Obama said, adding, "If they show me a serious plan, I'm ready to move, even if it requires some tough decisions on my part. Hopefully over the next couple of days we'll see this logjam broken."
While no negotiations will take place today, Obama said he instructed both sides to make a decision within the next 24 hours on whether to proceed toward a deficit deal linked to a debt limit increase, or whether to resign to what officials have called the "fallback option" that would simply avoid default.
"We have an opportunity to do something big," Obama said, "if we're willing to seize the moment."
Negotiators on both sides are reportedly weighing three options for how to proceed to raise the debt ceiling before an Aug. 2 deadline set by the administration.
The so-called "big deal," which Obama favors, would reduce the deficit by $4 trillion over 10 years with cuts to entitlement programs and tax increases.
"You have 80 percent of the American people who support a balanced approach," Obama said, seeking to add pressure on Republicans. "The problem is members of Congress are dug in ideologically. They boxed themselves in with previous statements."
But the dual approach of the $4 trillion dollar deal -- benefit cuts and tax hikes -- has failed to win momentum in recent days, with both sides at impasse over the need to sacrifice in order to come to an agreement.
A middle-ground deal would trim somewhere between $1.5 and $1.7 trillion in government spending, but impose no entitlement cuts or tax elements. One roadblock with that plan is that Republicans demand that spending cuts at least match the amount of the increase of the debt ceiling, which the president says needs to be $2.4 trillion or so to get to 2013.
The fail-safe option -- conceived by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. -- would allow the debt ceiling to be raised by the president, with Congress voting disapprovingly three times before the 2012 election.
McConnell and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid have been considering the creation of an independent deficit commission that would recommend cuts to be voted on in Congress. "It's not the preferred option that we have," White House spokesman Jay Carney said Thursday.
McConnell's plan does, however, provide a light at the end of the tunnel as the Aug. 2 default deadline quickly approaches and financial leaders warn of dire consequences.
Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke said this week not raising the ceiling would be disastrous. And leading U.S. credit rating agencies have warned the country's bond rating is up for review and possible downgrade. Standard & Poor's warned that there is a 50 percent chance it will downgrade the government's credit rating within three months because of the impasse.