Fixing U.S. retirement and health-care programs that threaten to bankrupt the government might be impossible before the next president arrives in 2009, a Democratic senator who had hoped to broker a deal this year said on Friday.

Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad of North Dakota had been plotting ways to achieve a bipartisan compromise by September on reforming the Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid programs.

As more baby boomers — the huge generation born from roughly 1946 to 1964 — retire, the costs of the programs for the elderly and poor are expected to rise rapidly.

In an interview with reporters, Conrad said, "The window of opportunity we thought we’d have might be closed" and that he would talk to his Republican counterpart, Sen. Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, about a possible delay.

Conrad noted the 2008 presidential campaigns, both Democratic and Republican, were under way early, which could make it difficult to tackle such controversial reforms.

President George W. Bush cannot run for a third term in November 2008, making for a wide-open field of presidential candidates.

While work can be done in the meantime, Conrad said it might be better if the group’s conclusions were "handed to the new administration just as it is coming in," which would be January 2009.

Conrad and Gregg had been hoping a bipartisan group could settle on ways to reform the popular benefit programs and fix long-term imbalances between government spending and the revenues it collects. 

That could mean talking about politically difficult subjects such as tax increases, lower benefits and Social Security privatization. Bush has unsuccessfully promoted the latter.

Conrad and others have insisted all topics be included in the negotiation. Democrats and Republicans remain distrustful that each would be open to all ideas.

Via Reuters

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