Senate Democrats eye the lockbox for Social Security, in Al Gore revival

Senate Democrats eye the lockbox for Social Security, in Al Gore revival

Senate Democrats want to put the Social Security trust fund in a lockbox and insulate it from a broader budget-cutting package designed to reduce the national deficit.

It’s a revival of the concept that former Vice President Al GoreAlbert (Al) Arnold GoreHamas attacks Israel — and the world condemns Israel Al Gore: Trump should fire Pruitt Dems seize on gun control heading into midterms MORE (D) made famous when he sparred with George W. Bush over a proposal to invest a portion of Social Security funds in the private market.

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Eleven years later, Social Security is again a hot political topic.

During his State of the Union address, President Obama called on Congress to “find a bipartisan solution to strengthen Social Security for future generations.”

But labor unions and liberal groups have waged a blistering campaign to steer budget cutters away from Social Security, a widely popular safety-net program.

Leading Senate Democrats say Social Security reform should not be part of a deficit reduction package under negotiation.

Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), who is at the center of bipartisan talks, said he wants to prolong the solvency of Social Security to 75 years. Under its current setup, the program is projected to pay 100 percent of benefits for the next 26 years.

But Conrad does not want Social Security to be part of a broader proposal to reduce the $1.6 trillion federal deficit.

“It might be useful to have Social Security treated on a separate track because it is not part of the deficit reduction package,” Conrad told The Hill before the Presidents Day recess. “I think it should be separated.

“There are many who recognize we have a long-term challenge with Social Security, but that’s very separate from the deficit reduction,” Conrad said. “When those two get put together, it creates huge problems to getting the deficit reduction done, because it confuses the issue.”

Conrad says lawmakers should look instead to reducing projected costs in other entitlement programs, such as Medicare and Medicaid. He notes that one of every six dollars in the economy is spent on healthcare and argues that further reform and savings must be found in the healthcare accounts.

Conrad’s stance should please House Democrats who warned the Senate last week to keep Social Security out of a plan to reduce the general government budget deficit.

“Divorce this conversation about deficit reduction from Social Security and making it a better program!” Rep. Xavier BecerraXavier BecerraTrump's EPA quietly revamps rules for air pollution Flurry of lawsuits filed over citizenship question on census Trump continues to put Americans first by adding citizenship question to census MORE (D-Calif.) told a meeting of Social Security advocates on Capitol Hill last week.

But it’s an area of potential disagreement with Tom CoburnThomas (Tom) Allen CoburnPension insolvency crisis only grows as Congress sits on its hands Paul Ryan should realize that federal earmarks are the currency of cronyism Republicans in Congress shouldn't try to bring back earmarks MORE (R-Okla.), who is meeting regularly with Conrad and Sens. Dick DurbinRichard (Dick) Joseph DurbinTo succeed in Syria, Democrats should not resist Trump policy Hannity, Kimmel, Farrow among Time's '100 Most Influential' The Hill's Morning Report: 200 Days to the Election MORE (D-Ill.) and Mike CrapoMichael (Mike) Dean CrapoLobbyist whose wife rented to Pruitt steps down Americans are set for relief from an Obama-era financial rule Watchdog files complaint GOP senator did not report fundraisers held at condo co-owned by lobbyist’s wife MORE (R-Idaho) to put together a deficit reduction plan.

Coburn warns that if Social Security reform is not part of the package, Congress won’t address it for years.

“Nothing will ever happen if we do it that way,” Coburn said of the prospect of separating Social Security from a deficit reduction package.

Liberal Democrats were concerned over Conrad’s role in deficit reduction talks because, as a member of Obama’s fiscal commission, he voted for a plan to raise the Social Security retirement age and lower cost-of-living adjustments.

They are reassured that Conrad has said Social Security reform should be kept apart from a broad deficit-reduction package.

“I appreciate what Sen. Conrad said,” said Sen. Bernie SandersBernard (Bernie) SandersSanders ally pushes Dems on cutting superdelegates Sanders: ‘Trump's agenda is dead’ if Democrats win back majority Hannity snaps back at 'Crybaby' Todd: 'Only conservatives have to disclose relationships?' MORE (I-Vt.), founder of the Senate Social Security Caucus. “I can tell you that I think there is growing sentiment within the Democratic caucus to make sure that Social Security is not dealt with within the context of deficit reduction.”

Sanders said once Social Security is separated from deficit reduction talks, lawmakers could debate ways to extend its solvency. He favors raising the cap on income subject to payroll taxes, which is now $106,800.

Other Senate Democrats have called for Social Security reform to be handled separately from a comprehensive deficit reduction package.

“Social Security isn’t contributing to the deficit now,” said Sen. Chris CoonsChristopher (Chris) Andrew CoonsPompeo lacks votes for positive vote on panel Overnight Defense: House to begin work on defense policy bill | Panel to vote Monday on Pompeo | Trump to deliver Naval Academy commencement speech | Trump appeals decision blocking suspected combatant's transfer Heitkamp becomes first Dem to back Pompeo for secretary of State MORE (D-Del.). “We need to be working to ensure the long-term survivability of Social Security, but we’ve got a lot of other big budget challenges in the short term.

“What I think is important is for the broad public to realize that any changes to Social Security are going to stand on their own to ensure that Social Security is viable,” he said. “It’s not part of fixing the deficit.”

Sen. Carl LevinCarl Milton LevinSen. Gillibrand, eyeing 2020 bid, rankles some Democrats The Hill's 12:30 Report Congress needs bipartisanship to fully investigate Russian influence MORE (D-Mich.) said Social Security reform should be handled separately “because it doesn’t affect the deficit.”

Senate Majority Leader Harry ReidHarry Mason ReidGOP poised to advance rules change to speed up Trump nominees Dems walk tightrope on Pompeo nomination The Memo: Teens rankle the right with gun activism MORE (D-Nev.) has also argued against linking Social Security reform to deficit reduction.

Jim Kessler, vice president of policy at Third Way, a centrist Democratic think tank, said lawmakers can separate Social Security from the deficit reduction package but they must reform the entitlement program sometime during the 112th Congress.

He argues that Democrats should agree to reforms to extend solvency while they control the White House and Senate.

“When is going to be a better environment to do something on Social Security?” he said. “The whole political formulation of Congress and the White House could change, and then you’re really in bad shape. I’d like to see them do something this Congress.”