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Left seeks to outflank reformers

Sen. Bernie SandersBernard (Bernie) SandersDems ponder gender politics of 2020 nominee 2020 Dem contenders travel to key primary states After Florida school shooting, vows for change but no clear path forward 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 Levy BoxerKamala Harris endorses Gavin Newsom for California governor Dems face hard choice for State of the Union response Billionaire Steyer to push for Dem House push MORE (D-Calif.), Barbara MikulskiBarbara Ann MikulskiDems ponder gender politics of 2020 nominee Robert Mueller's forgotten surveillance crime spree Clinton: White House slow-walking Russia sanctions MORE (D-Md.) and Sherrod BrownSherrod Campbell BrownLawmaker interest in NAFTA intensifies amid Trump moves Dem senator shares photo praising LeBron James after Laura Ingraham attacks Trump gets recommendation for steep curbs on imported steel, risking trade war 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 Emiel FeinsteinLawmakers feel pressure on guns Feinstein: Trump must urge GOP to pass bump stock ban Florida lawmakers reject motion to consider bill that would ban assault rifles 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 WhitehouseCommittee chairman aims for House vote on opioid bills by Memorial Day Regulators seek to remove barriers to electric grid storage Prison sentencing bill advances over Sessions objections MORE (D-R.I.), Mark BegichMark Peter BegichPerez creates advisory team for DNC transition The future of the Arctic 2016’s battle for the Senate: A shifting map MORE (D-Alaska), Debbie StabenowDeborah (Debbie) Ann Stabenow10 Senate Democrats are up for reelection in Trump country At least Alzheimer’s research is bringing Washington together Senate Dems block crackdown on sanctuary cities MORE (D-Mich.), Richard Blumenthal (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 Mason ReidWATCH: There is no Trump-Russia collusion and the media should stop pushing this The demise of debate in Congress ‘North by Northwest,’ the Carter Page remake 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 DurbinRichard (Dick) Joseph DurbinAmerica’s waning commitment to the promise of the First Amendment Senate rejects Trump immigration plan What to watch for in the Senate immigration votes MORE (Ill.), both of whom served on Obama’s fiscal commission, are negotiating a deficit-reduction package with Sens. Tom CoburnThomas (Tom) Allen CoburnPaul Ryan should realize that federal earmarks are the currency of cronyism Republicans in Congress shouldn't try to bring back earmarks Republicans should know reviving earmarks is a political nightmare MORE (R-Okla.) and Mike CrapoMichael (Mike) Dean CrapoBeware of the bank deregulation Trojan horse Senate Republicans call on Trump to preserve NAFTA Dems rip Trump's Fed pick as Senate panel mulls three key nominees 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.