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Social Security Ties Democrats in Knots

Democrats are split when it comes to what to do about Social Security — if anything — and the intraparty divide could throttle efforts to get a grand bipartisan budget compromise.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), Democratic Policy and Communications Center Chairman Charles Schumer (N.Y.) and Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.), among others, have all ripped proposals to cut Social Security of late. But Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Budget Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) both backed President Barack Obama’s fiscal commission proposal, which included a Social Security overhaul that among other things raised the retirement age to 69 and shrunk benefit increases for higher-income seniors as part of a plan to shore up the program for the next 75 years.

The split is equally apparent in the House, with Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) speaking out forcefully against raising the retirement age, an idea floated by several of her deputies, including Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), perhaps the biggest deficit hawk in either chamber.

The mixed signals come straight from the top, with Obama confounding deficit hawks in both parties by only mentioning Social Security in passing in his State of the Union address.

Reid joined a press conference held by the Progressive Change Campaign Committee last week where he vowed to oppose efforts to privatize or eliminate Social Security, saying that was “off the table.” That followed up a Jan. 9 appearance on “Meet the Press” in which he declared the program “fine” and solvent for the next 40 years.

Republicans have noticed.

Speaker John Boehner put the issue squarely in Reid’s lap on Sunday.

“We’ve got the Senate Majority Leader who says there’s no problem in Social Security,” the Ohio Republican said on “Fox News Sunday.” “And if we can’t get Senate Democrats and their leader to recognize that we’ve got real problems, I don’t know how we begin to move down this path of having this adult conversation that I’d like to have and I, frankly, like the president would like to have.”

According to a GOP leadership aide, Boehner’s pointed attack on Reid was not an isolated offhand comment but was part of a messaging campaign to place the blame for a lack of entitlement reform on Democrats.

The “spotlight needs to be on Reid and Pelosi,” the leadership aide said.

Boehner’s comments echo statements made by House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), who has also repeatedly blamed Reid in interviews. Cantor repeated the “conversation” meme and refused to back any specific ideas during a “Meet the Press” grilling of his own Sunday. He referenced but did not endorse House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan’s (R-Wis.) “Roadmap” plan, which significantly cuts both Social Security and Medicare.

Republicans also noted that Democrats’ political committees in both chambers have already begun making charges of a GOP plot to privatize Social Security a central campaign theme — which will make it difficult for either side to work on the issue.

“There is a problem but it’s being denied … and we cannot do anything until they call off the dogs,” the House GOP leadership aide said.

Several Republican aides said that without Democrats coming on board, they have no plans to push a Social Security reform bill through the House.

And without Democratic cover, Boehner last week walked back his proposal to increase the Social Security retirement age to 70, telling CNN that he made a “mistake” by offering a specific proposal last year before having that all-important “conversation” with the public.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) likewise has been appealing to Reid, as well as to Obama, to back a bipartisan effort on entitlements, without endorsing anything specific.

Democrats in both chambers continue to pound Republicans for backing privatization, an idea almost universally opposed on the Democratic side.

“Republicans have a long record of pushing to privatize it and they are even talking about privatizing Medicare by including the Ryan voucher plan in their budget,” Pelosi spokesman Nadeam Elshami noted Monday.

Deficit hawks like Conrad seized on last week’s report from the Congressional Budget Office that the deficit will hit
$1.5 trillion this year — and that Social Security itself is starting to drain cash from the Treasury rather than running a surplus — as a prod to action.

But other Democrats are pushing back. Schumer and several other Democrats formed a new Social Security caucus last week to protect the program.

Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), a member of the new caucus, downplayed talk of any division in his party and said Social Security cuts should be taken off the table.

“Very few Democrats want to raise the retirement age. Very few Democrats want to cut a program that is the strongest pension program in America,” he said. “I just don’t think there is any real split in the party.”

He blamed the Social Security push on Republicans who don’t like the program.

“They cut taxes on the rich one month, and the next month they go after people who get $1,100 a month after paying in all their lives,” he said. “It’s a moral question for us, not a political one.”

Baucus, who voted against the fiscal commission proposal in part because of its cuts to Social Security, continues to oppose cutting benefits.

“Social Security is not the cause of our deficit problem,” he said in a statement.

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