WASHINGTON — Senior citizens' advocates delivered a blunt warning Monday to White House and congressional negotiators not to tamper with Social Security, adding to political pressure that sent the two sides scurrying for other alternatives to cut the deficit.
Arthur S. Flemming, chairman of a coalition called Save Our Security, told a hastily called Capitol Hill news conference that "there will be political fallout" if Congress delays expected Social Security increases.
The so-called "budget summit," now in its fourth week, continued to focus on finding an additional savings of at least $2 billion from federal entitlement programs.
Only Stumbling Block
That appears to be the only major stumbling block to an agreement by the Republican White House and the Democratic-led Congress to reduce the deficit by more than $30 billion.
But, as Friday's deadline for striking a deal approaches, the quick mobilization of opposition to proposals for making those final cuts demonstrates the basic reality of deficit-reduction politics: Despite the shock from the stock market's crash several weeks ago, it is far from clear that the public is willing to accept the sacrifices that would be required to bring spending in line with government revenues.
Whenever the negotiators explore the idea of cutting any large segment of the budget, particularly federal benefits programs that large segments of voters have come to expect, they hear howls of protest from powerful interest groups.
"All of us operate on the basis that the public is willing to accept something fair and equitable," said Rep. Leon E. Panetta (D-Monterey), one of the negotiators. "But one person's fairness is another person's inequity."
A Los Angeles Times Poll taken late last month indicated that, while almost two-thirds of those surveyed saw the deficit as a major problem, none of the painful solutions--cutting defense spending, reducing domestic programs or raising taxes--drew support from more than a third.
Negotiators believe that they have a basic agreement on the broad outlines of the deficit-reduction plan.
"We're getting down now to a relatively narrower range of choices," House Majority Leader Thomas S. Foley (D-Wash.) said. "All of these . . . involve pain."
The overall package is expected to include about $10 billion in new taxes, $5 billion in defense spending cuts, $5 billion in entitlement program reductions and $2.6 billion from other domestic programs.
Additional savings would come from selling federal assets, imposing higher fees on those who use government services and other revenue-producing measures.
A proposal to delay cost-of-living increases for government workers, Social Security recipients and other federal pensioners appeared to have been shelved Monday after it drew strong protest from both Democrats and Republicans in Congress, who fear a backlash. There are nearly 38 million persons receiving Social Security benefits, averaging $491 a month for retired workers.
One Democratic congressional aide said that any move to limit cost-of-living increases "is not political courage; it's political stupidity. You're asking people to vote for something that no one wants."
"The deer season opens in many states today, and we would hope that the Administration and Congress would not make it open season on senior citizens," added Jacob Clayman, president of the National Council of Senior Citizens. "The eyes of the elderly will be on all lawmakers."
Rep. Claude Pepper (D-Fla.), speaking to the group on a videotape from Florida, said that he would insist on a separate vote on the House floor--a vote that could come back to haunt congressmen in next year's elections--if any Social Security changes are included in a budget compromise.
Negotiators are seeking to reduce the projected $180-billion deficit by more than $23 billion, the minimum reduction they need to avoid the spending cuts now scheduled to occur Friday automatically under the Gramm-Rudman deficit-reduction law.
However, they are hoping to agree on a significantly larger package as a means of reassuring investors and bringing stability back to financial markets.
The White House agreed to send a team of negotiators to Capitol Hill in the wake of the Oct. 19 stock market crash. At that time, President Reagan also indicated that he would consider new taxes beyond the relatively modest $4 billion that he proposed in his own budget early this year.