Baucus: Take Social Security out of talks on deficit reduction

Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, said Tuesday that Social Security should not be part of current efforts to reduce budget deficits.

At a Finance hearing, Baucus said that Social Security “is an issue that should be addressed sooner, rather than later, to give workers time to plan for any changes.”

“But the current situation does not necessitate rushed or severe action,” added Baucus, who is one of the bipartisan group of lawmakers discussing deficits with Vice President Joe Biden. “Our deficit and debt, on the other hand, is clearly a crisis.”

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Baucus’s Tuesday comments might not be a total surprise, as he has said in the past that the entitlement program was not a driver of the country’s current fiscal problems. He also voted against the plan from President Obama’s fiscal commission in part because it called for raising the Social Security retirement age.

But the Montana Democrat appears to be laying down another marker in advance of the second installment of the Biden talks, which are set for this afternoon. A Senate Democratic aide said that Baucus wants any Social Security fixes off the table when it comes to budget deficits.

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On Monday, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said that the $14.3 trillion debt ceiling should be increased only if it it paired with a greater amount of spending cuts. The Speaker also reiterated that he was opposed to using any tax increases to reduce deficits.

For its part, the Gang of Six, the bipartisan group of senators using the fiscal commission's plan as a guidepost, could include Social Security in whatever plan they produce.

By and large, Social Security is not seen as being as large a long-term fiscal problem as other entitlement programs, like Medicare and Medicaid. 

But Baucus’s comments underscore that Democrats and Republicans could also have a hard time coming together on Social Security.

Top Democrats, like Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.) and New York Sen. Charles Schumer, have also said that Social Security should be removed from deficit-reduction discussions.

But on Tuesday, Sens. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) did not seem so sure of that.

Toomey told reporters that he was surprised by Baucus’s comments, calling Social Security the easiest of the entitlements to fix.

And Hatch, the ranking member on Senate Finance, said at the Tuesday hearing that the Social Security Trust Fund took in less than it paid out last year.

“If someone wants to tell me that question has nothing to do with the current deficits and debt, I think I’ve got a fine old bridge linking Manhattan and Brooklyn that I’d like to sell you,” Hatch said.

For his part, Baucus on Tuesday also called Social Security benefits “modest” and said they are already scheduled to be reduced, with the retirement age currently rising toward 67. The Finance chairman said a one-year boost in the retirement age was essentially a 7 percent decrease in benefits.