WASHINGTON - The battle to control the federal deficit is shifting ground, ever so slowly, to Social Security, Medicare and the other giant benefit programs that account for a growing share of spending.
President Bush, in the fiscal 2006 budget that he is to present to Congress on Feb. 7, is expected to resurrect a failed proposal from last year that calls for any increases in benefit programs to be offset by decreases of equal size from other benefit programs.
But congressional Republicans may try to get out ahead of him. Although lawmakers have no firm targets for benefit cuts, at least one influential senator - Budget Committee Chairman Judd Gregg of New Hampshire - is laying plans to institute a procedure that would make it harder for Democrats to block benefit cuts.
"This is a chance to awaken the discussion," Gregg said. "I don't expect to resolve it, [but] I hope we can kick off the ball and get things rolling."
Gregg said he believes lawmakers are more serious about deficit reduction than at any time in recent years, because they have heard an earful from voters about runaway red ink.
"This is going back to our roots as the Republican Party," Gregg said. "A lot of the people who support us expect us to be fiscally responsible."
Such talk has advocates for those who rely on the benefits programs on edge.
"It is a serious threat," said Richard Kogan, a senior fellow at the liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. "This is going to be a year when people like us are going to be on the defensive."
The procedure favored by Gregg has not been used since 1997. It has the support of House Budget Committee Chairman Jim Nussle, an Iowa Republican, according to committee communications director Sean Spicer. Every year, Gregg's committee prepares a budget resolution that sets a limit on overall spending and tells other Senate committees how much they can spend on the various programs under their jurisdiction.
Gregg said he planned to attach language to this year's budget resolution instructing the committees with jurisdiction over some of the entitlement programs to cut them. The committees' cutbacks would be packaged in a single "reconciliation" bill, so-called because it reconciles those spending plans with the budget resolution.
The reconciliation procedure could make a big difference in what legislation Congress enacts this year.
Senate Democrats can filibuster ordinary legislation, and the Senate's 55 Republicans are not enough to produce the 60 votes required to break a filibuster and force legislation to a vote. But congressional budget rules dictate that a reconciliation bill cannot be filibustered.
All Republicans need are 51 of the 100 senators - a simple majority - to pass a reconciliation bill. Gregg's plan would have the effect of allowing senators to approve budget cuts with a simple majority, rather than the usual 60 votes.
"There's no way to restrain entitlement programs without reconciliation," Gregg said.
The reconciliation maneuver has been in mothballs since 1997, when lawmakers used it to produce a bill to save $160 billion over the next five years. The cuts helped usher in four years of budget surpluses.
Since then, the deficit has ballooned, to $412 billion last year. Gregg, who is new to the Budget Committee's chairmanship this year, said the chief culprit is the growth of the giant "entitlement" programs - so-called because they entitle people to federal benefits according to their age, income or some other characteristic.
A quick glance at the budget numbers shows why entitlements loom so large. The biggest - Social Security - will entitle the elderly and disabled this year to checks totaling about $510 billion, fully one-fifth of the federal budget. Medicare benefits for the same groups will cost an additional $325 billion.
Compared with that, the programs that Congress can enlarge or reduce annually in its regular spending bills are very small. Economic development grants to poor communities, a traditional target of budget cutters, will cost about $4.6 billion this year. The government will spend about $1.2 billion this year to subsidize Amtrak.
But the bigger a program is, the more people benefit from it - and have a stake in keeping it intact. Altogether, entitlement programs will soak up about $6 of every $10 the government spends. By contrast, "discretionary" domestic spending, excluding defense, accounts for less than $2, and it has already been squeezed in past rounds of spending cuts.
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.