WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration is pushing back against a Wednesday night report that the president is prepared to offer cuts to Social Security as part of a deal to raise the debt ceiling.
"The story overshoots the runway," said a senior administration official. "The President said in the State of the Union that he wanted a bipartisan process to strengthen Social Security in a balanced way that preserves the promise of the program and doesn't slash benefits."
"While it is definitely not a driver of the deficit," the official added, "it does need to be strengthened."
The response, sent via email to The Huffington Post, provides a measure of assurance to Democrats who were taken aback by the abrupt news, broken by the Washington Post, that Social Security reform was now on the debt-ceiling table. Still, the devil is in the details, and the idea of "strengthening" the entitlement program remains the vague standard for reform.
Making Social Security means tested, for instance, could be pitched as a way to improve the program's solvency, even if doing so would drastically undermine its founding purpose, as some experts warn.
There are also several smaller alterations that have been proposed. Last week, advocates expressed concern over news that lawmakers were considering changes to the way the government calculates the rate of growth for benefits people receive.
Confusing the debate even more are the political implications of putting Social Security or any other entitlement reform at the heart of debt-ceiling negotiations. Democrats believe they can use Republicans' votes for a Medicare voucher program earlier this spring as a potent political weapon. But by signing off on cuts of their own -- the thinking goes -- Democrats would lose any political advantage they've gained by saying they are protecting Medicare while the GOP is trying to fundamentally change or do away with the program.
UPDATE 10:38 a.m: White House spokesman Jay Carney commented on the reports concerning Social Security cuts Thursday morning.
"There is no news here," Carney said. "The President has always said that while social security is not a major driver of the deficit, we do need to strengthen the program and the President said in the State of the Union Address that he wanted to work with both parties to do so in a balanced way that preserves the promise of the program and doesn't slash benefits."