Some Senate Dems willing to consider Social Security reforms

Several Democratic senators are separating themselves from their leadership and encouraging President Obama to cut Social Security benefits by raising the retirement age in order to keep the entitlement solvent.

Sens. Tom Carper (D-Del.) and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Sen.Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), who caucuses with the Democrats, are all openly calling for reform, and making it plain that the party is disunited on the issue when a titanic debate over debt is gathering momentum.

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If the president called for raising the Social Security retirement age by a year or two, phased in slowly over several decades, these senators say they could support him.

“My sons are 21 and 22; neither of them thinks Social Security is around for them. I want to make sure that it is,” said Carper, “It’s going to have to be a combination of very modest adjustments in benefits, very modest, and some frankly fairly modest changes with respect to revenues.”

But Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) refuses to give an inch on benefit cuts, arguing that the program has not contributed “one penny” to the debt.

Obama will deliver a speech at George Washington University on Wednesday about debt reduction, and has come under heavy pressure from labor unions and liberal groups not to endorse Social Security cuts as part of his plan.

He is not expected to call for a Social Security overhaul, but Democratic senators suggest that he could get bipartisan backing if he chose to do so and took the lead. The fiscal commission he appointed more than a year ago has already laid out a roadmap.

Carper noted that the commission, chaired by former White House Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles and former Sen. Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.), called for a gradual increase in the retirement age, to 68 by 2050 and 69 by 2075.

Carper and other Democrats willing to consider an increase in the retirement age stress the savings should go to prolonging the life of the safety-net program and not to reducing the deficit.

Feinstein, an influential voice in the Senate Democratic Conference, could also support a gradual increase in the retirement age. 

“Depending on how it’s done, yes,” Feinstein told The Hill last month. “If you change it a month a year beginning in the year 2014, it’s benign, relatively benign,” Feinstein said. “The earlier you make the changes, the easier they are.”

Lieberman said it’s not politically realistic to prolong the solvency of Social Security solely by raising taxes, as some Democrats such as Sens. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) have proposed.

“Anybody on Social Security today under any of the reform plans I’ve seen for Social Security will continue to get the benefits promised, but the people coming on will get a little less than they would otherwise get under current law,” Lieberman said. “They’ll get less because right now Social Security is on schedule to run out of money, so that would lead to enormous cuts in Social Security.”

Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), a member of the Gang of Six, a bipartisan group negotiating a deficit reduction package, said Democrats must be willing to give ground on adjustments to Social Security retirement benefits.

“You’ve got to be willing to put everything on the table,” he told The Hill recently.

Warner said the argument from his liberal colleagues that retirement benefits should be sacrosanct ignores long-term fiscal projections.

“It’s just kind of hard to argue when some of this is math, 16 workers for every one retiree 50 years ago and now three workers for every retiree,” he said, noting that life expectancy has increased nearly 15 years since President Franklin Roosevelt started the program.

House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) didn’t include Social Security cuts in the 2012 budget plan he unveiled last week.

But Senate Republicans negotiating a broad deficit reduction package will insist that it include Social Security reform.

Although Social Security has a $2.6 trillion surplus, the balance is theoretical since the federal government has borrowed from the program’s trust fund to pay for other priorities. Adding to its fiscal problems, the program went “cash negative” last year, when it began paying out more in benefits than it accepted in payroll taxes.

Sen. Tom Coburn, a member of the Gang of Six, says there will be no deal without Social Security reform. The Oklahoma Republican said Social Security reform will help reduce deficit spending by giving confidence to the bond markets that float the U.S. debt.

“You can’t just borrow the money from the international financial community unless you arrange for its future,” Coburn said. “Unless the markets see we have taken care and solved our long-term budget problems, it will [lead to a] significantly increased cost of borrowing by not fixing Social Security.”

He argues the federal government will have to take on more debt to pay off the obligations it owes to the Social Security trust fund. 

Several Senate Democrats have signaled they’re willing to look at adjustments to Social Security benefits in combination with raising the cap on income subject to payroll taxes. One idea is to raise the cap only for individuals earning more than $200,000 a year and families making more than $250,000.

But they are reluctant to go out on a limb before the president or their colleagues have publicly unveiled specific proposals.

“I don’t want to exclude the possibility,” said Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), when asked about raising the retirement age. “I don’t want to commit to any possibilities, because it’s much too fluid and much too big an issue. It involves a lot of other issues.”

A pivotal figure is Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), a member of the Gang of Six, who has kept his intentions quiet. 

“I just don’t think it’s wise for me to begin that discussion in the hallway,” he said when asked about cutting Social Security benefits as part of a broader plan for extending its solvency.

Social Security is projected to pay 100 percent of benefits until 2037. After that point, tax income would be sufficient to pay about 75 percent of scheduled benefits.