Congressional Democrats are embroiled in a battle behind the scenes over whether a politically treacherous Social Security overhaul has any place in an agenda already stuffed to the gills.
Liberal lawmakers have been pushing President Barack Obama to stay far, far away from the original “third rail— of politics, while more conservative Democratic Members are egging him on, arguing that there is a bipartisan appetite for getting a deal.
Obama flirted with a major Social Security effort during a fiscal summit at the White House last month. But he soft-pedaled on the issue in his address to Congress just a day later — calling it the start of a “conversation— rather than demanding action — and left-leaning Democrats breathed a sigh of relief.
“I think they got the message,— said one Democratic Member, who had called the White House to urge them to put the kibosh on a Social Security overhaul for now. “I called them up and said, Why would we revisit this issue in the first six months?’—
Politically, the issue is highly controversial, as any fix could cut the growth of benefits or increase taxes.
But House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), the de facto leader of the Caucus’ fiscally conservative wing, said he still supports moving forward with Social Security reform, even though he acknowledged that health care is the higher priority.
“Social Security is probably easier to do in some respects and less expensive,— Hoyer said. “On the Republican side, I think there is still an energy present to address the Social Security issue. I certainly share that and I think the president shares that. These are all huge issues, which for too long have not been addressed and resolved through bipartisan agreement.—
“You need to move forward on parallel tracks on a lot of different issues,— Hoyer added.
But his enthusiasm doesn’t appear to be shared by other House leaders, including Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).
Pelosi spokesman Nadeam Elshami said the Speaker “shares President Obama’s commitment to preserving Social Security … but Congress’ first priority is to tackle the economic and fiscal crises facing our nation.—
Pelosi has repeatedly dismissed talk of a bipartisan commission to deal with Social Security and other entitlement reform — an idea backed by Hoyer, many conservative Democrats and Republicans.
The House Democrats’ campaign chief also is happy with the focus staying on health care rather than Social Security.
“The Obama administration recognizes that the biggest challenge to our future fiscal stability lies in containing health care costs,— said Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “That’s job one.—
Kenneth Baer, spokesman for the White House Office of Management and Budget, said that while it would be nice to do, Social Security is second fiddle.
“Right now the focus is on getting health care done,— he said. “It doesn’t mean that we’re not sensitive to some of the long-term challenges that Social Security is facing. It would be a great American achievement if we were able to say that Social Security was on a firm footing not just for people currently working but for people entering the work force.—
Social Security has vexed presidents who have tussled with it before, including most recently George W. Bush and his ill-fated effort in 2005.
Democrats defeated Bush’s plans to privatize a big chunk of Social Security and credited their unified opposition with helping them retake control of Congress in 2006.
“We just dealt with that issue three years ago,— said the House Member, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “Why bring it up now?—
A Social Security debate would seem tailor-made to split the Democratic Party, particularly if Obama compromises with Republicans and conservative Democrats who want to slow the growth of benefits.
Liberals aren’t keen on anything smacking of a cut in benefits or an increase in the retirement age, while conservatives don’t want a big tax increase.
The various factions are gearing up just in case. The liberal Progressive Caucus is forming its own Social Security task force, said Caucus Co-Chairwoman Lynn Woolsey (D-Calif.), who wants to head off talk of trimming benefits.
Republicans have sensed Obama is backtracking, with leaders such as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) — who has continued to call for an overhaul — expressing their disappointment.
“If he does want to step up to the plate on that, there will be a lot of Republicans that want to help,— McConnell said last month.
With the Wall Street swoon, Republicans have killed off talk of investing Social Security dollars in the stock market, leaving merely the “math problem— of adjusting benefits formulas, twiddling with the retirement age or raising taxes to fill the hole.
“I’ve never seen a better time to come together,— said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who added that solving Social Security in a bipartisan way would bolster confidence and prove that the two parties could still come together to get something important done.
“If I were the president, I would try to get a win, on something that really matters,— Graham said, adding that he’d be ready to criss-cross the country with Obama to win support for the deal.
“I think he could sell it. I’d get on a plane with him, and go anywhere he wanted to go. I may not be able to do that on health care. I certainly could not do that on the budget. … I’m able to do that on Social Security.
“Take me up on it.—