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President Barack Obama is bringing together dozens of advisers and adversaries to discuss how to curb a burgeoning federal deficit laden with Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid obligations.
Obama’s summit at the White House on Monday is the first meeting toward a strategy to address the long-term fiscal health of the nation. The gathering also comes as Obama prepares ambitious plans to cut the federal deficit by half within four years.
"It will require doing all we can to get exploding deficits under control as our economy begins to recover," Obama said in his weekend Internet and radio address. "That work begins on Monday, when I will convene a fiscal summit of independent experts and unions, advocacy groups and members of Congress to discuss how we can cut the trillion-dollar deficit that we’ve inherited."
Even before it began, some of its 130 invited participants cautioned against overinflated expectations.
"It can either be a nice press event. Or it can be a substantive event," said Republican Sen. Judd Gregg, whom Obama appointed as commerce secretary before the New Hampshire lawmaker balked. "History tells us it will be the first. We’ve had these meetings before. There’s always a lot of people willing to point out the problem."
Yet, he said, there is seldom anyone willing to make the difficult decisions to solve those problems.
As the nation’s economy continues its downward spiral, Obama’s advisers are keeping their focus on the broader fiscal troubles that have sent millions to unemployment rolls. Taken in context, the summit is but one part of the White House’s larger approach to the coming weeks focused on Obama’s priorities for a first term, including a State of the Union-style address on Tuesday.
That speech is not likely to include plans to deal with long-crumbling entitlement programs.
The Senate’s top Republican, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, said a solution already exists in legislation written by Gregg and his Democratic counterpart on the Budget Committee, Sen. Kent Conrad of North Dakota.
Their measure would create a bipartisan commission to deal with Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. The entitlement programs face eventual bankruptcy, although experts differ on how urgently each is threatened.
Many House Democrats, however, remain opposed to a commission, including Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Obama has indicated he’s open to the idea — and many others — as a way to move toward a viable solution.
McConnell said any movement would be a step toward getting a handle on the unfunded liabilities.
"So I hope what the meeting at the White House is about tomorrow is about sobering up here and beginning to rethink the kind of debt that we’re laying on future generations," McConnell told CNN’s "State of the Union" program on Sunday.
That comes hand-in-hand with the president’s plans to deal with the deficit.
Obama plans to cut the federal deficit in half by the end of his first term, mostly by scaling back Iraq war spending, raising taxes on the wealthiest and streamlining government. The goal is to halve the federal deficit to $533 billion by the time his first term ends in 2013.
He inherited a deficit of about $1.3 trillion from his predecessor, President George W. Bush.
Meanwhile, Peter Orszag, director of the federal Office of Management and Budget, said Monday he believes the new fiscal plan will lure some Republican support — in contrast to the stimulus bill that got only three GOP votes in Congress.
He said he thinks some Republicans will back the plan because of proposals to overhaul the expensive U.S. health care system.
"Health care clearly is the key to our fiscal future," he said on CNN, "so we need to get health care costs u nder control and we want to do that this year."