By Erik Wasson and Mike Lillis - 02/18/11 01:31 AM EST
House Democrats worried that a bipartisan group of six senators is making progress toward putting the recommendations of President Obama’s debt commission into legislation delivered a message Thursday: Take Social Security out of the mix.
“Divorce this conversation about deficit reduction from Social Security and making it a better program!” Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Calif.) told a roomful of Social Security advocates on Capitol Hill on Thursday.
Becerra told the group that anyone who puts Social Security in the deficit conversation wants to get their “grubby hands” on the surplus in the Social Security trust fund to pay for other things.
While Becerra said Social Security needs to be reformed in order to pay benefits after 2037, there is no crisis that means it has to be done now.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said “whatever we do for Social Security is not about reducing the deficit. It is about strengthening Social Security — the solvency of Social Security. Those are two separate, different questions.”
“We are on the political high ground to defend Social Security every step of the way,” added Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), who also served on the debt commission and said she was worried about how senators were approaching its report.
The debt commission recommended reforming Social Security even though it acknowledged that the program, unlike Medicare and Medicaid, is not driving up the national debt.
A reason for that is Social Security is easier to deal with than the health programs, which can only be addressed by controlling wider healthcare costs.
Congressional Democrats and liberal think tanks view this week as a crucial time to influence the group of six before its bill is drafted.
Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), a member of the group, has said Social Security reform must be addressed in the package or it will be ignored.
Coburn, Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), Assistant Majority Leader Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Sens. Mike Crapo (R-Idaho), Mark Warner (D-Va.) and Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) hope to produce a plan within weeks and are aiming to have a draft bill ready at least by the time the nation’s debt ceiling is reached this spring so it can be paired with that vote, sources have said.
The House Democrats’ message comes as White House Budget Director Jack Lew said the administration believes the conversation about Social Security should be “parallel” to that on the deficit.
Lew offered that clarification to reporters about a section on Social Security in the president’s fiscal 2012 budget. The vaguely worded section laid out six principles for talking about Social Security but did not make clear if Obama wanted to have that discussion as part of a debt deal with Congress this year.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) pointed out this week his frustration that one of those principles stated the administration would not accept a proposal that “slashes” future benefits. He said that does not mean the administration will reject any cuts.
Robert Greenstein of the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities said Thursday the debt commission plan is flawed in several ways, including in how it deals with Social Security, and members looking to make it the basis of a plan should be wary.
Greenstein said he originally did not object to reforming Social Security as part of a package but has since changed his mind. The sloppiness of the debt commission proposal illustrates that rushing to do it now could lead to a botched reform, he suggested.
“If you try to do everything all at once, you run a greater risk of producing a plan that has serious flaws,” he said.
The center released a study Thursday that it said shows the debt commission miscalculated and its plan actually does not include special protections for low-income workers as National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform Chairmen Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson have claimed.
A main reason is that benefits for low-income workers do not kick in unless a relatively high lifetime average income minimum is reached.
Greenstein also pointed out other flaws, such as that the debt commission report capped discretionary spending “without much in the way of specifics” and would curb tax earmarks without specifying which ones to end.
One of the biggest holes in the Bowles-Simpson plan is its treatment of Medicare, even though the commission report acknowledges that federal health spending, exploding due to aging baby boomers, is the “single largest fiscal challenge,” he said.
While the commission proposed smaller adjustments to Medicare, the heart of the problem is rising healthcare costs.
The debt commission report simply states that growth in federal healthcare spending should be capped at 1 percent of gross domestic product. It recommends the president and Congress find a way to do that.