WASHINGTON - Is anyone going to fix Social Security? Medicare? Medicaid? Before they overwhelm the federal government?
While President Barack Obama and congressional leaders offer vague assurances, six senators - three Republicans and three Democrats whose ideologies cover the liberal-conservative spectrum - are quietly taking up the baton.
Those with bigger titles, including the president, are watching, ready to join the discussion if this Gang of Six doesn't trip on the opening lap. Obama did little to address entitlement programs in the 10-year budget he unveiled Monday, and House Republicans aren't touching them as they debate how much and where to cut other, mainly non-benefit programs for the next seven months.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said Thursday he plans to work on cutting wasteful spending in entitlement programs this spring, but offered no details. House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., said House Republicans will address guaranteed benefit programs in their 2012 budget plan, though Social Security isn't expected to be part of the plan.
For now, much of the debate on Capitol Hill is over a relatively small slice of the federal budget, a category known as non-security discretionary spending. The category includes many important programs, but accounts for just 12 percent of the budget.
By comparison, Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid will make up more than 40 percent of federal spending next year. If left unchecked, these three programs will grow to more than 60 percent of federal spending by 2035, when baby boomers will be at least 70, according to the president's budget proposal.
Social Security and Medicare already collect less in payroll taxes than they pay out in benefits, though Social Security has a sizeable trust fund from previous surpluses. Medicare's finances are far more precarious, and if Congress doesn't act, both programs will eventually be overwhelmed by the millions of baby boomers reaching retirement age. Medicare faces the additional problem of rising health care costs, an issue that was only partially addressed by Obama's health care overhaul.
"I believe it without question that we are on a course that will lead to a financial disaster," said Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., chairman of the Senate Budget Committee. "And it is our responsibility to bring the country back from the brink. It is our obligation, and it's got to start here."
Conrad, a moderate Democrat, has been quietly meeting with his five Senate colleagues for several weeks. The group includes another moderate, Democrat Mark Warner of Virginia; a liberal Democrat, Dick Durbin of Illinois; and three conservative Republicans - Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, Mike Crapo of Idaho and Saxby Chambliss of Georgia.
Their work builds on the plan produced by Obama's deficit commission in December, which called for about $1 trillion in tax increases and $2.9 trillion in spending cuts over the next decade. The senators are working to set similar spending caps and tax increases as part of an overhaul of the tax code. Their work has sparked opposition from liberal groups concerned about benefit programs and conservatives opposed to tax increases.
Conservative activist Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, told Crapo, Coburn and Chambliss in a letter Thursday that any support by them for a tax increase would be considered a violation of their pledge to not raise taxes.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., tried to take Social Security off the table a day earlier.
"Social Security has contributed not a single penny to the deficit so we can talk about entitlements as long as you eliminate Social Security, because Social Security is not part of the problems we have in America with the deficit," Reid told The Associated Press.
Conrad, Crapo, Coburn and Durbin all served on Obama's deficit commission, and all four voted to support the plan's wrenching measures, including raising the Social Security retirement age, cutting future benefit increases and eliminating popular tax breaks like the mortgage interest deduction.
"I wanted to make sure there was at least one voice at the table from my side of the political spectrum, so when we start talking about benefit cuts, that it's done in a thoughtful way, in a progressive way, so that we do protect the most vulnerable in America," Durbin said.
Obama, however, has not embraced any of the plan's major reforms - and hasn't come up with any of his own - drawing criticism from members of both parties in Congress.
"It's a shame the president hasn't decided to lead," Coburn said. "What we need is leadership in this country about the real problems and what the potential solutions are, and a call to arms for all Americans to join hands and look to solve our problems. Otherwise, we're in the tank."
Obama said his budget proposal is a down payment on the nation's financial problems, reducing borrowing by about $1 trillion over the next decade. It will take time, he said, to create the kind of political environment necessary for Democrats and Republicans to negotiate in good faith on more difficult long-term issues like Social Security and Medicare.
"If you look at the history of how these deals get done, typically, it's not because there's an Obama plan out there. It's because Democrats and Republicans are both committed to tackling this issue in a serious way," Obama said at a press conference this week.
"Those are big, tough negotiations, and I suspect that there's going to be a lot of ups and downs in the months to come before we finally get to that solution," Obama said. "But just as a lot of people were skeptical about us being able to deal with the tax cuts that we did in December, but we ended up getting it done. I'm confident that we can get this done as well."
Lawmakers in both political parties say entitlement reform won't happen unless Obama takes up the issue and dedicates the resources of his administration, much like he did to overhaul health care.
Crapo said Obama's budget proposal "was extremely discouraging because it appears to show that the White House does not see the urgency of dealing with entitlements, of dealing with the tax code."
"If the president will lead we will be much more successful much sooner and frankly it's discouraging to see the president continue to just take a pass," Crapo said.
Durbin holds out hope that Obama will jump on board if the six senators make progress.
"We are trying to put together, the six of us, are trying to put together a common agreement that is as inclusive as the deficit commission," Durbin said. "If we do that and we offer it to the caucus, on both sides of the aisle, and we have the necessary votes, I think we can sit down with the president and win his support."