Social Security reforms could be bombshell for House GOP

Republicans who took over the House on pledges to reduce federal spending and get the nation’s budget in order are running into the third rail of U.S. politics. 

A draft proposal from the co-chairman of President Obama’s fiscal commission this week put Social Security on the front burner, leading some Democrats to draw a line in the sand. The proposal would raise the retirement age, slightly reduce benefits and raise the cap on income subject to payroll taxes.

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While the proposal was drawn up to keep Social Security solvent and not to deal specifically with reducing the nation’s record deficit, Democratic strategists say it will be difficult for Republicans to duck an issue that has caused them political pain in the past.

“It does put them in a tough position,” Mike Lux, a strategist who works with liberal advocacy groups, said of the GOP. “These kinds of proposals, raising the retirement age and cutting benefits, are overwhelmingly unpopular with the American people."

Soon-to-be-Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) is on record supporting similar changes to Social Security, as is Rep. Paul Ryan (Wis.), the incoming chairman of the House Budget Committee and rising intellectual star of the House Republican Conference. 

Liberal groups and Democrats think they’ve found an issue where they can go on offense after a devastating midterm election for the party. 

“When people think about cutting government spending, this is not what they’re thinking about,” Lux said. “It’s going to put a lot of Republicans who advocated for that in a tough position."

Liberal Democrats and labor leaders seized on the Social Security cuts outlined in the draft proposal released Wednesday to blast the co-chairmen of Obama’s fiscal commission.

“Especially in these tough economic times, it is unconscionable to be proposing cuts to the critical economic lifelines for working people, Social Security and Medicare,” said AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka.

The attacks show Democrats are itching to frame fights over the nation’s budget and deficit around possible cuts to Social Security, something some Democrats tried to do during the 2010 campaign. Attacks on GOP plans showed little success then, but that could change with House Republicans in a position of power. 

Ryan has introduced the Roadmap for America’s Future Act, which would implement spending cuts to Medicare and Social Security.

Ryan’s legislation would accelerate the increase in the Social Security retirement age to 67 and thereafter increase it a month every two years, according to an analysis by Douglas Elmendorf, director of the Congressional Budget Office.

The legislation would also lower retirement benefits for workers who are 55 or younger in 2011 and would establish a system of individual accounts in 2012. Workers 55 and younger could choose to fund these accounts with a portion of their payroll taxes.

Boehner told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review in June that he would support increasing the Social Security retirement age to 70 for people who have at least 20 years until retirement. He also endorsed linking cost-of-living increases to the consumer price index instead of wage inflation.

Michael Steel, Boehner’s spokesman, noted that Reps. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and James Clyburn (D-S.C.), who are running for the Democratic whip’s post, have voiced support for raising the Social Security retirement age. 

“Like Vice President [Joe] Biden, Rep. Hoyer and Rep. Clyburn, Boehner has suggested this as a possible option to protect Social Security for future generations,” Steel said.  

But Republican pollsters warn that talk about raising the retirement age could come back to hurt Republicans on the campaign trail, noting that campaign ads often ignore the details of such proposals.

“Part of it depends on what’s the story,” said Glen Bolger, a GOP pollster and co-founder of Public Opinion Strategies. “If the story is 'Social Security retirement age to go up,' that’s very problematic.

“If the story is 'Social Security retirement age is to go up in 2050,' it’s a little less troublesome,” he said. “But you know what the ads will be like when they run them again.”

Democratic strategists say it will be difficult for Republican leaders to steer clear of Social Security reforms after pledging to voters a new regime of fiscal discipline in Washington.

“If Republicans are going to commit to what they ran on, that means making some awful hard decisions that aren’t very popular politically, and this falls right in the middle of it,” said Chris Lehane, a Democratic political strategist who worked for former Vice President Al Gore.

“At the end of the day, if they’re really serious about putting government on a diet, what they’re talking about is a liquid diet,” Lehane said. “Are they going to cut back on Social Security and Medicare? They could look at other places, but those are tiny amounts of money.”

Republican lawmakers routinely talk about the need to eliminate earmarks and “waste, fraud and abuse” in the federal budget, but former Sen. Alan Simpson (Wyo.), the Republican co-chairman of the fiscal commission, estimates “that will get you 5 percent out of the hole we’re in.”

But centrist Democrats say the draft recommendations from the fiscal commission co-chairmen are reasonable. They note the money saved from the proposed reforms would be used to strengthen Social Security and not go toward the general Treasury deficit.

“The recommendations on Social Security fall well within the mainstream of what most progressive organizations that care about Social Security solvency think should be done to save it,” said Jim Kessler, vice president for policy at Third Way, a centrist Democratic think tank. “Everyone believes there should be increases in the retirement age, some adjustment to the cost-of-living adjustments and some increase in revenues.”

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