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Democrats No Longer Divided Over Social Security

Expansion, not cuts, has been the theme in Washington and on campaign trail

More Democrats are coming around to Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren's thinking on Social Security. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
More Democrats are coming around to Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren's thinking on Social Security. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

While there was a split among moderate and liberal Democrats on Social Security, expanding the program rather than cutting it is becoming the party line on the Hill and on the campaign trail.

On Friday, Democratic Reps. Linda T. Sánchez, Mark Pocan, and Michael M. Honda announced legislation to expand Social Security.

At a news conference, Sánchez said the bill could be an alternative to raising the retirement age.

“We think this is a common sense way to extend the solvency of Social Security and to increase benefits,” said the California congresswoman, who added that the bill could move, if not in the current Congress then in the next one.

Last Thursday, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee released statements from incumbent Democratic senators and Senate candidates saying they supported Social Security and Medicare expansion.

One of the co-signers was Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet, who said in a 2010 interview, “We can’t solve our budget crisis without dealing with our entitlements.”

But in the release, Bennet, who now looks to have an easier path to re-election than what was once thought, said, “With our seniors living longer, expanding Social Security and securing its long-term solvency will ensure that our most vulnerable Americans who have paid into Social Security all their lives are guaranteed the retirement they deserve.”

Bennet was joined by Senate challengers including former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland, Arizona Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, Illinois Rep. Tammy Duckworth, former Iowa Lt. Gov. Patty Judge, former North Carolina state Rep. Deborah Ross, California Attorney General Kamala Harris, and former Wisconsin Sen. Russ Feingold.

In addition, the campaigns of two other Senate candidates, Katie McGinty in Pennsylvania and Florida Rep. Patrick Murphy, confirmed they supported expansion.

PCCC co-founder Stephanie Taylor noted the shifting tide.

“Unlike in 2014, the 2016 Democratic ticket is united around big, bold, progressive ideas like expanding Social Security benefits that will motivate voters this November,” Taylor said. 

Expanding Social Security got a boost when President Barack Obama, and presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders announced their support.

While expansion is unlikely in the current Republican-controlled Congress, it will also be difficult to pass if Democrats gain control of the Senate and the House remains in GOP hands.

“It’s going to take a while,” said Alex Lawson, executive director of Social Security Works, an advocacy group. “We are just going to keep steadily moving.”

During the presidential primaries, a Pew Research Center survey found that 71 percent of all voters said benefits should not be reduced.

Andrew Biggs, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute who served on President George W. Bush’s Social Security commission, said that in the past there was a group of moderate Democrats open to raising the retirement age while more liberal lawmakers wanted to fix the program with tax increases.

But lately, many Democrats have championed an expansion in benefits, as was the case with Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin III, who last year introduced an amendment that would have created a deficit-neutral fund for “expanding and protecting Social Security.”

While the amendment failed, all but two Democrats present — Delaware Sen. Thomas R. Carper and North Dakota Sen. Heidi Heitkamp  — supported it.

Lawson said groups like his organization have worked to shift the debate from raising the retirement age or reducing benefits to expansion by pushing members not to support cuts.

“Once it was clear, it is not a hard pitch to Democrats — the party that created Social Security — to say nobody wants you to cut their Social Security,” Lawson said.

Groups like the PCCC pressured presidential candidates from the start of the campaign to promote what the PCCC calls “bold progressive ideas” like Warren’s, including expanding Social Security.

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In her primary race this year, McGinty criticized her opponent, former Rep. Joe Sestak, for previously supporting the Simpson-Bowles plan, which included provisions for raising the retirement age.

And in Murphy’s primary race against fellow Florida Rep. Alan Grayson, Grayson released an ad that was edited to sound like Murphy advocated cutting Social Security. He doesn’t.

Murphy co-sponsored the House version of a bill that Warren supported that would include a onetime increase in Social Security benefits. Duckworth was also a co-sponsor of the legislation.