President Barack Obama's offer to slow the growth of Social Security benefits would force fellow Democrats in Congress to abandon promises to shield the massive retirement and disability program from cuts as part of negotiations to avoid the year-end fiscal cliff.
Both Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., pledged not to touch Social Security as part of deficit reduction talks.
Now that Obama and House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, have agreed to a new measure of inflation that would reduce annual cost-of-living adjustments, or COLAs, for Social Security and other government programs, Democrats are reluctant to call it a deal-breaker.
As Obama and Boehner continued to haggle over how much to raise taxes and cut spending, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney called the new inflation measure a technical adjustment designed to make inflation estimates more accurate, and he emphasized it's Republicans who want it.
"Let's be clear. This is something that the Republicans have asked for, and as part of an effort to find common ground with the Republicans, the president has agreed to put this in his proposal," Carney told reporters Tuesday. "The president has always said, as part of this process when we're talking about the spending cut side of this, that it would require tough choices by both sides."
Boehner proposed the change earlier this month in talks with Obama, and the president included it in a counteroffer this week. (Read More: Obama, Boehner Press On.)
Carney said Obama's plan "would protect vulnerable communities, including the very elderly, when it comes to Social Security recipients."
The White House has not released details on how Obama's plan would do this. But the president's 2010 deficit commission recommended an enhanced minimum benefit for low-wage workers and an automatic increase in benefits once a person has been receiving Social Security for 20 years.
The inflation measure under consideration is called the Chained Consumer Price Index. On average, the measure shows a lower level of inflation than the more widely used Consumer Price Index because it assumes that as prices rise, consumers turn to lower-cost alternatives, reducing the amount of inflation they experience.
If adopted across the government, the change would have far-reaching effects because so many programs are adjusted each year based on year-to-year changes in consumer prices.