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Republican Cantor defends cuts at raucous Harvard event

By Ros Krasny

CAMBRIDGE, Massachusetts (Reuters) - Republican proposals on how to reform costly federal programs like Social Security and Medicare could be ready in about a month, a top Republican lawmaker said on Thursday.

Speaking at Harvard University, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor said the Republican "prescription" on entitlement reform would be included in budget proposals it expects to release in March or early April.

Cantor said that proposed reforms would not affect "today's seniors or those approaching retirement," who he defined as age 55 and up. For others, "we need to come to grips with the fact that we have to change those programs."

Separately, Cantor said Congress is weighing its options after President Barack Obama ordered his administration to stop defending the constitutionality of a federal law that bans recognition of gay marriage. "I was a little taken aback by the president," Cantor said of Obama's move.

Cantor's speech at Harvard on Republican plans to revitalize the U.S. economy was raucous, with many students critical of planned cuts to popular programs for the current budget year and beyond.

Several hundred protested outside the event against plans for cuts to Teach for America, global health initiatives and federal Pell grants to low-income college students, among many other programs.

Inside the forum, a group of students briefly interrupted Cantor's question and answer session, unfurling a large banner that read "Fully Fund Global Health" and chanting "Budget Cuts Kill!" before being bundled out of the arena.

Others challenged Republican proposals, such as the decision to eliminate funding for reproductive health care provider Planned Parenthood, as ideologically based, and said broad cuts could undermine the fragile U.S. economic recovery.

Republicans, who gained control of the House in November's elections, have said that federal belt-tightening will reinvigorate investment in the private sector by raising business confidence.

"The renewed promise of growth in America requires breathing life back into our country's culture of individual enterprise and unencumbered opportunity," said Cantor.

The Congressman defended the budget cuts as necessary trade-offs at a time of a fiscal "train wreck," although he defended lower tax rates for upper-income Americans even as social programs are pared back.

"We're going to have to make some tough choices ... government must stop spending money it doesn't have," he said.

The speech came as the House and Senate stare down a potential government shutdown when the resolution now funding the government expires on March 4.

Senate Democrats have said they will push for a 30-day extension of funding at current levels until both chambers can agree to a longer-term extension. House Republicans insist that any stop-gap measure must include deep spending cuts.

(Reporting by Ros Krasny, Editing by Peter Bohan)