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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 GoreHow Democrats can defy the odds in 2022 The information superhighway must be accessible and affordable for all American Rescue Plan: Ending child poverty — let's make it permanent 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 BecerraNIH reverses Trump administration's ban on fetal tissue research Overnight Health Care: Johnson & Johnson delay prompts criticism of CDC panel | Pfizer CEO says third dose of COVID-19 vaccine 'likely' needed within one year | CDC finds less than 1 percent of fully vaccinated people got COVID-19 NIH to make announcement on fetal tissue research policy amid Trump-era restrictions 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 CoburnCongress brings back corrupt, costly, and inequitably earmarks Conservative group escalates earmarks war by infiltrating trainings Democrats step up hardball tactics in Supreme Court fight MORE (R-Okla.), who is meeting regularly with Conrad and Sens. Dick DurbinDick DurbinBiden on refugee cap: 'We couldn't do two things at once' For a win on climate, let's put our best player in the game Biden angers Democrats by keeping Trump-era refugee cap MORE (D-Ill.) and Mike CrapoMichael (Mike) Dean CrapoOn The Money: Inflation rears its head amid spending debate | IRS chief warns of unpaid taxes hitting T | Restaurants fret labor shortage IRS chief warns of unpaid taxes hitting trillion Trump faces test of power with early endorsements 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 SandersBernie SandersWorld passes 3 million coronavirus deaths Sirota: Biden has not fulfilled campaign promise of combating union-busting tactics Democratic senators call on Biden to support waiving vaccine patents 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 CoonsChris Andrew CoonsSunday shows preview: Russia, US exchange sanctions; tensions over policing rise; vaccination campaign continues Progressives put Democrats on defense Moderates' 0B infrastructure bill is a tough sell with Democrats 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 LevinThe Hill's Morning Report - Biden officials brace for worst despite vaccine data Michigan GOP unveils dozens of election overhaul bills after 2020 loss How President Biden can hit a home run MORE (D-Mich.) said Social Security reform should be handled separately “because it doesn’t affect the deficit.”

Senate Majority Leader Harry ReidHarry Mason ReidThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Tax March - CDC in limbo on J&J vax verdict; Rep. Brady retiring Biden to tap Erika Moritsugu as new Asian American and Pacific Islander liaison White House races clock to beat GOP attacks 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.”