Left seeks to outflank reformers

Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersTop Sanders aide: DNC needs a 'unifier' as chair Wasserman Schultz fights to keep her job DNC chair: I'm 'focused on doing my job' MORE (I-Vt.) and liberal Democrats opposed to cutting Social Security benefits are trying to outflank President Obama and centrists who have signaled a willingness to cut a deal with Republicans. 

In a move intended to put lawmakers on the record regarding the “third rail” of American politics, the liberal senators introduced a measure Tuesday to require a two-thirds majority in both chambers of Congress in order to pass any cuts to Social Security benefits. 

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Sanders and allies such as Sens. Barbara BoxerBarbara BoxerThe Hill's 12:30 Report Sen. Boxer fires back at Sanders aide: 'He wasn't there' Sanders aide questions Boxer's story about fearing for her safety MORE (D-Calif.), Barbara MikulskiBarbara MikulskiLawmakers push to elevate Cyber Command in Senate defense bill Dems discuss dropping Wasserman Schultz The Trail 2016: Sanders who? MORE (D-Md.) and Sherrod BrownSherrod BrownGroups urge Senate to oppose defense language on for-profit colleges The Trail 2016: Dems struggle for unity House Dems urge Senate panel to vote on Ex-Im Bank nominee MORE (D-Ohio) fear that Obama might strike a deficit-reduction deal with GOP leaders that could raise the Social Security retirement age or shrink cost-of-living adjustments. 

“We’ve been waging this fight,” Sanders said on “The Bill Press Show,” a liberal radio program, when asked about possible cuts. “We’ve introduced legislation that would make it very difficult for the White House or anybody else to do that.”

The president’s economic advisers, led by Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and National Economic Council Director Gene Sperling, have argued behind the scenes for curtailing benefits, according to Democratic sources who have discussed Social Security reform with senior administration officials. 

“This is extraordinarily upsetting to me,” Sanders said of the willingness of some senior White House officials to accept cuts in benefits. “It’s part of the president’s, or at least some of his people’s shift — significant shift to the right here.” 

A White House spokesman on Monday denied there was a schism between Obama’s economic advisers and political strategists about how to proceed on Social Security. 

The Senate Democratic Conference is split over whether to reduce future Social Security benefits to extend the solvency of the program.

The trust fund has a $2.6 trillion surplus, but last year began paying more in benefits than it collected in revenues. As a result, the federal government must borrow money to pay what it owes to the trust fund. 

Several centrists and mainstream Democrats told The Hill on Tuesday that they could accept benefit cuts to extend the fiscal health of the trust fund. 

“Depending on how it’s done, yes,” said Sen. Dianne FeinsteinDianne FeinsteinClinton’s email troubles deepen Top Dem: CIA officials thought spying on Senate ‘was flat out wrong’ Senate panel advances spy policy bill, after House approves its own version MORE (D-Calif.). “If you change it a month a year beginning in the year 2014, it’s benign, relatively benign,” Feinstein said of raising the retirement age. “The earlier you make the changes, the easier they are.”  

Sen. Joe Lieberman (Conn.), an Independent who caucuses with the Democrats, said “the sooner we deal with the problem, the less harsh the cuts will be.” Lieberman said that “politically, it’s not realistic” to extend the solvency of Social Security by focusing solely on tax increases or benefit cuts. 

The legislation Senate liberals introduced Tuesday would force other Democrats and centrist Republicans to stake out public positions.  It would require a two-thirds vote in both chambers to approve any cuts to Social Security, such as raising the retirement age from 67 to 68, which critics say would amount to a 6 percent to 7 percent reduction in benefits. 

Sens. Sheldon WhitehouseSheldon WhitehouseHonor Frank Lautenberg by protecting our kids Senators take aim at 'armies of zombie computers' Dems pressure Obama on vow to resettle 10,000 Syrian refugees MORE (D-R.I.), Mark BegichMark BegichEx-Sen. Kay Hagan joins lobby firm Unable to ban Internet gambling, lawmakers try for moratorium Dem ex-lawmakers defend Schumer on Iran MORE (D-Alaska), Debbie StabenowDebbie StabenowThe Hill's 12:30 Report Dems: GOP playing from 'Trump textbook' Will Republicans put up more bureaucratic obstacles to healthy kids? MORE (D-Mich.), Richard BlumenthalRichard BlumenthalGroups urge Senate to oppose defense language on for-profit colleges Lawmakers push to elevate Cyber Command in Senate defense bill Senators take aim at 'armies of zombie computers' MORE (D-Conn.) and Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii) have co-sponsored the legislation. 

The bill would put senators in a tough position, because a vote against it could be interpreted as a vote against protecting benefits.   A vote for the bill would make it difficult to support a proposal that could emerge later this year calling for an increase in the Social Security retirement age and a recalculation of cost-of-living adjustments. 

Sanders has offered his Social Security Protection Act as an amendment to small-business legislation pending on the Senate floor. 

Senate Majority Leader Harry ReidHarry ReidOvernight Finance: Puerto Rico bill clears panel | IRS chief vows to finish term | Bill would require nominees to release tax returns Wasserman Schultz fights to keep her job Overnight Defense: Pentagon chief fears sequestration's return MORE (D-Nev.) has said Social Security reform should be taken off the table in ongoing deficit-reduction talks, but declined Tuesday to promise Sanders a vote on his amendment.  

Reid said he would take a look at it, but warned against setting a 67-vote threshold for changing the payout of benefits.  

“You’d be changing the rules here, and I think we have to be very careful doing that,” he said.

Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) and Senate Democratic Whip Dick DurbinDick DurbinReid: 'Lay off' Sanders criticism Senators tout 4.5B defense spending bill that sticks to budget Lawmakers seek changes in TSA PreCheck program MORE (Ill.), both of whom served on Obama’s fiscal commission, are negotiating a deficit-reduction package with Sens. Tom CoburnTom CoburnMcCain: No third-party foes coming for Trump Tough choice for vulnerable GOP senators: Embrace or reject Trump The Trail 2016: Donald and the Supremes MORE (R-Okla.) and Mike CrapoMike CrapoOvernight Finance: Path clears for Puerto Rico bill | GOP senator casts doubt on IRS impeachment | Senate approves .1B for Zika Senate passes broad spending bill with .1B in Zika funds Housing groups argue Freddie Mac's loss should spur finance reform MORE (R-Idaho), also commission members. All four voted for the commission’s proposal to raise the retirement age and reduce cost-of-living adjustments.

They are negotiating a deficit-reduction package that would include the recommendations of the fiscal commission. 

Conrad and Durbin have said they would prefer to advance Social Security reform separately from a broader deficit-reduction plan. Coburn, however, insists that any deficit-reduction deal include Social Security.