Left seeks to outflank reformers

Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersGOP ramps up attacks on SALT deduction provision Symone Sanders to leave the White House at the end of the year Briahna Joy Gray says Chris Cuomo will return to CNN following scandal 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 BoxerFirst senator formally endorses Bass in LA mayoral bid Bass receives endorsement from EMILY's List Bass gets mayoral endorsement from former California senator MORE (D-Calif.), Barbara MikulskiBarbara Ann MikulskiTwo women could lead a powerful Senate spending panel for first time in history Harris invites every female senator to dinner next week Will the real Lee Hamiltons and Olympia Snowes please stand up? MORE (D-Md.) and Sherrod BrownSherrod Campbell BrownSenate race in Ohio poses crucial test for Democrats Powell says Fed will consider faster taper amid surging inflation Biden faces new pressure from climate groups after Powell pick 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 FeinsteinWhat's that you smell in the Supreme Court? New variant raises questions about air travel mandates Progressive groups urge Feinstein to back filibuster carve out for voting rights or resign 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 WhitehouseWhat's that you smell in the Supreme Court? The Hill's Morning Report - Ins and outs: Powell renominated at Fed, Parnell drops Senate bid On The Money — Biden sticks with Powell despite pressure MORE (D-R.I.), Mark BegichMark Peter BegichAlaska Senate race sees cash surge in final stretch Alaska group backing independent candidate appears linked to Democrats Sullivan wins Alaska Senate GOP primary MORE (D-Alaska), Debbie StabenowDeborah (Debbie) Ann StabenowOvernight Energy & Environment — Presented by ExxonMobil — Dems seek to preserve climate provisions Democrats wrangle to keep climate priorities in spending bill  Senate parliamentarian looms over White House spending bill 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 ReidBottom line Voters need to feel the benefit, not just hear the message Schumer-McConnell dial down the debt ceiling drama 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 DurbinConservatives target Biden pick for New York district court Democrats, GOP pitch parliamentarian on immigration policies in spending bill Senate parliamentarian looms over White House spending bill MORE (Ill.), both of whom served on Obama’s fiscal commission, are negotiating a deficit-reduction package with Sens. Tom CoburnThomas (Tom) Allen CoburnBiden and AOC's reckless spending plans are a threat to the planet NSF funding choice: Move forward or fall behind DHS establishes domestic terror unit within its intelligence office MORE (R-Okla.) and Mike CrapoMichael (Mike) Dean CrapoGOP ramps up attacks on SALT deduction provision Senate GOP threatens to block defense bill    Republican Senators request military aid for Taiwan amid pressure from China 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.