Republican presidential hopeful Chris Christie proposed pushing back the age of eligibility for Social Security and Medicare for future retirees on Tuesday as part of a plan to cut deficits by $1 trillion over a decade, an approach he said would confront the nation's "biggest challenges in an honest way."
In a speech in New Hampshire, site of the first 2016 presidential primary, the New Jersey governor also proposed reducing Social Security benefits in the future for retirees earning more than $80,000 a year and eliminating them for those with annual incomes of $200,000 or more. He said seniors who work after age 62 should be exempt from the payroll tax.
"Through its unwillingness to address our biggest challenges in an honest way, the Obama administration has put us on a perilous course for both our short-term and our long-term futures," Christie told the New Hampshire Institute of Politics at Saint Anselm College. "See, I think it's time to tell the truth about what we need to do in order to solve our problems and put our country back on the path to greater prosperity."
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The proposal marked an attempt to establish Christie's deficit-cutting credentials in a race that has three other Republicans as declared presidential candidates, with more to come. Christie says he will decide in May or June whether to launch a campaign for the nomination.
The nearly 40-minute speech delved into policy specifics Christie has previously avoided. But similar proposals to take on cherished entitlements have been made for years, by people in and out of Congress, and have not gone anywhere.
Christie proposed increasing the retirement age for Social Security to 69, beginning with gradual increases in 2022, as well as raising the early retirement age to 64 from 62, and changing the way cost-of-living increases are calculated for Social Security and other benefit programs, an adjustment that would mean smaller increases in the future.
He'd also increase the Medicare eligibility age gradually to 67 by 2040 — and turn Medicaid into a block grant program to the states, which Republicans have long proposed and critics say could mean reduced benefits over time.
While he put the savings of his proposals at $1 trillion over a decade, neither he nor aides outlined numbers to back up the estimate. The most significant impact from raising the age of eligibility for Medicare and Social Security would come farther into the future, when workers currently at mid-career begin to reach retirement age.
It's the first of four major policy speeches he intends to deliver over the next two months, Christie told radio host Hugh Hewitt. The others will be on national security and national defense, taxes and economic policy and energy.
The speech kicked off Christie's first extended swing through the early-voting state. It comes as Christie faces an uphill battle for a pension overhaul in New Jersey, where he has been sued by more than a dozen public workers' unions for scaling back promised payments into pension funds as part of a deal hailed as a landmark during his first term.
Speaking to reporters after visiting a pizzeria following the speech, Christie said that pension experience serves as a cautionary tale of what can happen if costs aren't checked.
"We are the canary in the coal mine for the country," he said. "We do not want what's happening in New Jersey to have to happen to the rest of the country."
Christie also greeted people in a line for Ben & Jerry's free ice-cream cone day and attended a happy hour at a bar in Newmarket where he briefly addressed the crowd.
"I've spent a lot of time here in New Hampshire meeting lots of folks, and I suspect if we decide to go forward with this next adventure, I'll be spending a lot more time here," he said.
Kath Allen, who works with a committee devoted to preserving Social Security and Medicare, didn't agree with his approach but was glad he talked about the issue.
She noted that, when Christie visited the state in the summer, he punted a question on the topic.