With Obama address, Democrats revive specter of GOP threat to Social Security

By Michael D. Shear and Lori Montgomery
Sunday, August 15, 2010

Reviving a political tactic that Democrats have used before, President Obama said in his radio address Saturday that "some Republican leaders in Congress" want to privatize Social Security -- even though few GOP lawmakers today support the idea.

The specter of a threat to the program that provides retirement income to senior citizens is a preview of an attack that Democrats intend to make this fall, as they hope to blunt what appears to be a Republican surge in congressional elections.

"I'd have thought that debate would've been put to rest once and for all by the financial crisis we've just experienced," Obama said of privatizing Social Security. "I'd have thought, after being reminded how quickly the stock market can tumble, after seeing the wealth people worked a lifetime to earn wiped out in a matter of days, that no one would want to place bets with Social Security on Wall Street."

But GOP leaders are not pressing for privatization. The idea proved so unpopular when President George W. Bush proposed it in 2004 that Congress, then led by Republicans, never took it up. The concept lives on in a budget proposal by Rep. Paul D. Ryan (Wis.), the senior Republican on the House Budget Committee, but only a handful of GOP lawmakers have signed on to that measure. And, in the aftermath of the worst shock to the financial system since the Great Depression, many Republican lawmakers would just as soon see the idea forgotten.

A spokesman for House Republican leader John A. Boehner (Ohio) accused Obama and the Democrats of dredging up old issues that are no longer valid.

"Washington Democrats are beginning to sound like the pitcher in Bruce Springsteen's 'Glory Days' -- wistfully pining for the policy debates of the last decade," said the spokesman, Michael Steel.

The issue of Social Security is already playing out in races across the country.

In Nevada, U.S. Senate candidate Sharron Angle (R) has a new television ad in which she pledges to "save" the program and accuses her opponent, Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D), of "raiding" the retirement trust fund.

Angle's ad comes after weeks of taking on water over the issue as Reid has repeatedly slammed her for past comments on Social Security. One Reid ad featured Angle saying, "We need to phase Medicare and Social Security out."

Such back and forth is a microcosm of what Democrats hope will be a similar debate in races around the country about what to do next on Social Security. To commemorate Sunday's 75th anniversary of Social Security becoming law, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has released a list of 13 Republican Senate candidates expressing support for some form of privatization of the retirement system.

Meanwhile, a coalition of 60 liberal groups and advocates for the elderly, including the AFL-CIO and MoveOn.org, are predicting a different threat to Social Security: the possibility that a bipartisan deficit commission created by Obama will propose slashing benefits to help dig the nation out of debt.

Coalition members plan to buttonhole lawmakers as they campaign for reelection this fall, demanding that they sign a pledge to oppose any cuts to program entitlements, such as raising the retirement age. "Over the coming weeks and months, we're making sure every politician is put on notice: If you're looking to raise the retirement age, you should be looking to retire in November," said Nita Chaudhary, campaign director at MoveOn.org.

Such an effort could make the work of the deficit commission far more difficult. Commission members from both parties view Social Security as a prime opportunity for compromise -- far easier to address than, for example, an overhaul of the tax system -- and say they want to stabilize the program's finances.

But forging a bipartisan compromise is likely to require cost-cutting as well as higher taxes. Boehner and House Democratic leader Steny H. Hoyer (Md.) have both suggested raising the retirement age, which leading economists and budget experts have advocated. The commission is also studying less dramatic options, such as changing the way inflation is measured for benefit adjustments and slowing the rate of increase in benefit payments for better-off retirees.

Staff writer Chris Cillizza contributed to this report.

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