Sanders warns Obama not to agree with GOP on Social Security benefit cuts

Sen. Bernie Sanders, the Independent from Vermont, is pressing President Obama to keep his campaign promise not to cut Social Security benefits in a possible deal with Republicans.

Sanders has joined a lobbying campaign by more than 200 labor unions and liberal groups pressing Obama to make a strong statement against cutting Social Security benefits in his State of the Union address, scheduled for Jan. 25.

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These groups fear that Obama may agree to cuts to Social Security in exchange for Republican support for raising the debt ceiling later this winter or as part of a broad agreement to reduce the deficit.

Obama campaigned against raising the retirement age and cutting Social Security benefits when he ran for president in 2008. In recent weeks, however, he has stayed largely silent on the proposal to cut benefits put forth by the fiscal-responsibility commission he appointed.

“I urge you to once again make clear to the American people that under your watch we will not cut Social Security benefits, raise the retirement age or privatize this critical program,” Sanders wrote in a letter to Obama. “Social Security is a promise that we cannot and must not break.”

Sanders, who caucuses with Senate Democrats, and other liberals are worried about whether they can trust Obama after he struck a deal with Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) last year to pass an $858 billion tax package.

The package extended Bush-era tax cuts for the nation’s wealthiest families and set the estate tax at 35 percent for individual inheritances above $5 million, exempting inheritances below that threshold.

Especially alarming for Sanders and other Senate Democrats, the tax deal included a one-year reduction in the Social Security payroll tax from 6.2 percent to 4.2. The administration has promised to replenish the $120 billion in lost revenue to the Social Security trust fund from the general treasury at a future date, but Sanders and his liberal allies are skeptical.

“The danger of doing that is that this precedent becomes extended,” Sanders said in an interview. “I know as surely as I’m sitting here that a year from now, when President Obama says this is only a one-year program, what are Republicans going to say? They’re going to say no.”

Liberal Democrats are worried about Obama's appointment of former Sen. Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.) to the fiscal commission. They view him as a longtime antagonist of the program.

They say Obama could have picked other former Republican lawmakers or GOP economists with greater sympathy for Social Security to serve atop the panel.


Obama’s selection of former Clinton White House Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles and Simpson to serve as co-chairmen of the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform has been viewed as evidence the president may be open to cutting Social Security benefits.

Sanders said Obama should have expected Bowles and Simpson would recommend raising the retirement age.

“That wasn’t an accident,” he said. “When you appoint people, you know what you’re going to get.”

The commission issued a final proposal in December that called for increasing the retirement age to 68 by 2050 and to 69 by 2075. It also suggested using a different basis for calculating cost-of-living adjustments, which liberal critics contend would further cut benefits.

Two Senate Democrats, Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin (Ill.) and Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad (N.D.), voted for the proposal, which garnered the support of 11 of 18 commissioners.

Eric Kingson, a professor at Syracuse University’s Center for Policy Research and co-chairman of the Strengthen Social Security Campaign, estimates increasing the retirement age by one year amounts to a 6 to 7 percent cut in benefits.

“Social Security has nothing to do with the deficit," Sanders said.

If Obama agrees to cut Social Security benefits as part of a deficit-reduction deal, “you’re conceding to Republican right-wing ideology, which doesn’t like Social Security because it’s a successful federal program.”

The Social Security trust fund has a $2.6 trillion surplus and is estimated to stay solvent for at least another 26 years.

“Mr. President, as I’m sure you are aware, our Republican colleagues have long opposed Social Security not because it hasn’t worked, but because of ideological reasons,” Sanders wrote in his letter to Obama.

Sanders contends Republicans don’t believe the government should provide retirement benefits to seniors and the disabled and would prefer Wall Street and the private sector take a larger role.