By Luciana Lopez and Scott Malone
NEW YORK/MANCHESTER, New Hampshire (Reuters) - New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, risking a backlash from older Americans, on Tuesday proposed cutting Social Security retirement benefits for the wealthy as he sought to stand out from a crowded Republican 2016 presidential election field.
With the biggest policy proposal so far among the Republican White House hopefuls, Christie spoke in the early voting state of New Hampshire. He was seen a few months ago as one of the top Republican contenders for the party's nomination but has since been eclipsed by others.
The governor, despite his own stalled efforts at reforming the New Jersey pension system, proposed Social Security "means-testing" that would reduce the size of benefits for people earning more than $80,000 annually and phase them out entirely for those earning $200,000 or more.
"Do we really believe that the wealthiest Americans need to take from younger, hard working Americans to receive what, for most of them, is a modest monthly Social Security check?" Christie asked.
Previous efforts to reform Social Security in the United States have made little progress, even as worries have increased that the program's trust fund could be depleted within decades.
While Christie is courting fiscal conservatives in his party, his proposals are sure to prove controversial.
In his second term in the White House, President George W. Bush, brother of potential 2016 candidate Jeb Bush, proposed changing Social Security, which is funded through taxes on wages, to allow workers the option of shifting some of their contributions into private accounts.
Bush's plan, which was never enacted, fell flat with many Americans, and many of his fellow Republicans distanced themselves from it.
U.S. Rep. Bill Pascrell, a Democrat from New Jersey, criticized Christie's proposed overhaul.
"Governor Christie has decided that the only way to rein in entitlement spending is on the backs of seniors. This couldn't be more wrong," Pascrell said in a statement said.
In New Jersey, Christie's administration is appealing after losing in court to unions protesting his decision to strip $1.6 billion from the state's 2015 contribution into the New Jersey public employee retirement system. A similar lawsuit for the state's 2016 contribution has been filed.
The blunt-spoken Christie, who has yet to decide whether he will seek the White House, has been eclipsed by former Florida Governor Jeb Bush and U.S. Senator Marco Rubio of Florida.
Michael Tanner, senior fellow in social welfare policy at the Washington, D.C.-based Cato Institute, which advocates limited government, said Christie had few paths open in the campaign.
"He’s got to try to find something else and this offers an avenue, and one that’s kind of fitted to his personality," Tanner said. "Will it work, I have no idea. It’s taking his strength and running with it.”
This week's New Hampshire tour is seen as potentially pivotal for Christie. He will need to reassure donors and supporters about his viability as a candidate, despite questions about his temperament and a scandal known as "Bridgegate" involving a massive traffic jam that prosecutors are investigating as possibly politically motivated.
Christie's speech proposed other policy changes, such as raising the age when people can get Social Security benefits, eliminating payroll taxes for those who continue to work beyond age 62 and changing the way the Medicaid health program for the poor is funded.
He also proposed changes for the Social Security disability trust fund, including speeding up disability eligibility determination and the time in which the temporarily disabled must return to work.
And Christie proposed expanding means testing for Medicare, as well as raising the eligibility age for the program over several years.
Some in the crowd agreed with Christie that reforms were needed.
"I thought it sounded very pragmatic and realistic in a lot of ways," said Tom Murphy, a 63-year-old self-employed graphic designer from Manchester.
Jim Headd, a 74-year-old former Republican state representative from Auburn, said a gradual change in the age of Social Security eligibility appealed to him.
"It seems very logical to me, better than the shock treatment," Headd said.
(Editing by Lisa Von Ahn and Grant McCool)