Democrats stiffen spine against trimming benefits

By:  Andrew Taylor

WASHINGTON (AP) - President Barack Obama's re-election has stiffened Democrats' spine against cutting popular benefit programs such as Medicare and Social Security. Their new resolve could become as big a hurdle to a deal that would skirt crippling tax increases and spending cuts in January as Republicans' resistance to raising tax rates on the wealthy.

Just last year, Obama and top Democrats were willing during budget negotiations with Republicans to take politically risky steps such as reducing the annual inflation adjustment to Social Security and raising the eligibility age for Medicare.

Now, with new leverage from Obama's big election victory and a playing field for negotiations that is more favorable in other ways, too, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and other Democrats are taking a harder line.

‘‘I've made it very clear. I've told anyone that will listen, including everyone in the White House, including the president, that I am not going to be part of having Social Security as part of these talks relating to this deficit,'' Reid, D-Nev., told reporters.

Reid's edict would appear to take a key proposal off the table as an ingredient for a deal on avoiding the ‘‘fiscal cliff,'' the year-end combination of expiring President George W. Bush-era tax cuts and harsh across-the-board spending cuts.

At issue is the inflation adjustment used by the government to calculate cost-of-living adjustments for Social Security and other federal programs. A less generous inflation measure that takes into account consumers finding alternatives when prices go up could reduce deficits by more than $200 billion over the next decade.

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