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Power Up: Gary Cohn says Trump’s proposed cuts to Social Security would be ‘political suicide’

with Brent D. Griffiths

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BREAKING IN ISRAEL: "Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has all but secured a 5th term on Wednesday morning, after more than 95 percent of the votes gave the right-wing bloc a 10-seat lead over the left," per Israeli newspaper Haaretz. "Netanyahu's Likud tied with Benny Gantz's Kahol Lavan party with 35 seats each. Both leaders made victory speeches after the exit polls, vowing to be 'everyone's prime minister.' But almost all right-wing parties have said they would recommend to the president that Netanyahu form the next ruling coalition." 

The People

THE THIRD RAIL: Gary Cohn, President Trump's former National Economic Council director who was one of the architects of Trump's tax plan, said that the administration's proposed cuts to Social Security in its 2020 budget proposal amount to “political suicide.” 

  • “Democrats won't allow that to happen, and I don't even know if the Republicans will allow that to happen,” Cohn told Power Up in an interview on Tuesday.
  • Moving money out of the Social Security “trust fund,” Cohn said, would be “pretty difficult when you look at the demographics — even in a bunch of red states today. It would be political suicide, just like what Republicans saw happen with repealing preexisting conditions.”
  • Trump in March proposed a $26 billion cut to Social Security, including a $10 billion cut to its Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) program. 
  • Remember: Trump on the campaign trail vowed to leave Social Security alone.

But Cohn, the former Goldman Sachs executive once known for being one of the more moderating influences of the Trump administration, wants to save the federal retirement program so it can survive for future generations. After resigning from Trump's team in March 2018 over a fallout with the president on trade policy, he's now teaming up with an unlikely partner — former North Dakota Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp — to tackle what's been long considered the “third rail” in American politics.

This odd couple, both fellows at the Harvard Institute of Politics, is hosting a “Shark Tank” style pitching competition next Monday, in which Harvard undergraduate and graduate students will compete for the opportunity to present their ideas to lawmakers and administration officials in Washington. The goal is to bring fresh ideas to the table to address this intergenerational issue.

  • According to the annual report from Social Security's trustees, the program's “combined trust funds will be depleted in 2034" if Congress does not take action.

  • “Create an urgency”: “This is the moment we really need to have that conversation and create an urgency in expanding the dialogue to young people, as opposed to having old actuaries sitting in the room crunching numbers and coming up with ideas that will never sell politically,” Heitkamp explained of the motivations behind the project. 

Why now?: Cohn told Power Up that he attempted to raise some “very, very high level solutions” to address Social Security while spearheading tax reform at the White House — but failed to rally any support around tackling the issue.

Asked about the perception that the administration is trying to foot the costs of Trump's tax cuts, which have helped push the federal deficit to $1 trillion, with the 2020 budget's proposed cuts to benefits, Cohn replied that “it's hard to know what Republicans will vote for” — but cuts to the program are not a “politically amicable” solution.  

  • “Once you take any money out of [Social Security], the 2034 deadline just moves earlier and earlier,” Cohn said. 
  • Heitkamp dismissed the budget as a charade: “This is the reality: Every year we go through a charade. The charade is the president gives us a budget and it's immediately put into the shredder in Congress and everyone ignores it,” Heitkamp told us. “It was never a serious proposal, in spite of [former Director of the Office of Budget and Management Mick Mulvaney] saying that this time they are really going to push for it — that’s nonsense. It’s dead on arrival — and everyone knew it was dead on arrival — and that’s one of the problems with Washington. No one is serious about putting forth a proposal that makes sense economically.”

Cohn did not dismiss a political fix that's in the political discourse already: Democrats' Social Security 2100 Act. That bill, introduced by Rep. John B. Larson (D-Conn.) in February, “would cut federal income taxes on Social Security benefits for about 12 million middle-income people while raising taxes elsewhere. The payroll tax rate would rise to 14.8 percent over the next 24 years, from 12.4 percent, and the payroll tax would be imposed on earnings over $400,000 a year,” per the New York Times's Robert Pear

  • Cohn called Social Security taxes “very, very regressive” due to the cap set at $132,900. That means lower income earners proportionally pay more than higher income earners.
  • He wants a solution that goes beyond Social Security: “One of the winning answers would probably address redistribution as well — I think you can do both of those and make this work.” 
  • Some he has questions for students as they consider solutions: “Should we remove the cap and have people pay more? And what income do you look at that is eligible to be taxed? Right now, it's earned income, but there are other incomes that people have in the world.”

Critics of Cohn saw a contradiction between Cohn's work on Trump's tax bill versus the nature of his current project:

  • “The irony is quite rich for somebody who is the quarterback of Trump's trillion dollar tax giveaway to turn around and pose as a savior of Social Security because the tax cut, as critics have said at the time, has worsened the situation and increases pressure on Social Security and other programs,” Seth Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a liberal policy group, told Power Up. “The other irony of this is that the tax cut worsens the deficit.”

Let's not get ahead of ourselves: Reaching a compromise on Social Security may be far-fetched as lawmakers struggle to address more pressing budgetary issues. House Democrats were forced to call off a vote on a two-year budget plan yesterday, “an embarrassing outcome for leadership that raised questions about Congress’s ability to solve huge spending fights that loom later this year,” my colleagues Erica Werner, Mike DeBonis and Rachael Bade report. 

  • “Members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus were pushing an amendment calling for higher levels of domestic spending. With Republicans expected to unanimously oppose the legislation, leaders could lose only 17 Democrats on the vote, giving the group of lawmakers the power to exact their demands. But moderate-leaning Democrats opposed the amendment over concerns about skyrocketing federal spending, deficits and debt,” per Erica, Mike and Rachael. 
  • “We have to figure out whether we’re going to be able to govern,” Budget Committee Chairman John Yarmuth (D-Ky.) told reporters yesterday morning.
  • At stake: Setting federal spending levels for domestic and military programs -- not including Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security — that depend on congressional appropriations. 

On The Hill

THE UNCONFIRMABLES?: As Trump considers restocking his administration with some of his controversial supporters, even some Senate Republicans are sounding the alarm about prospects of their ability to be confirmed — and testing whether the White House is ready to expend the time and capital that might be needed for successful confirmations.

  • “Don’t go there. We can’t confirm him,” Kansas Republican Sen. Pat Roberts told the Kansas City Star, after the former secretary of his state Kris Kobach was mentioned as a possible candidate to lead the Department of Homeland Security.
  • “I don’t think Herman Cain will be on the Federal Reserve Board, no,” Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) told Politico. Trump indicated he would nominate the former GOP presidential candidate.
  • Former Trump campaign economic adviser Stephen Moore, who Trump says he will also nominate to the Fed, has raised eyebrows too. “It certainly from what I’ve read is an unconventional nomination and I would need to see how he did at the hearings and learn more about him before I could make a judgment,” Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) told Bloomberg.

"Spare everyone the embarrassment": And when senators are not trashing the chances of Trump’s potential picks, they are wondering why the White House is not consulting with them more. From my colleague Seung Min Kim:

And the Times's Glenn Thrush: 

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell declined to endorse either Cain or Moore, when he was asked on Tuesday.

  • “Well, we’re going to look at whoever he sends up, and once he does, we’ll take a look at it,” McConnell told reporters.
  • Colby Itkowitz and Seung Min report: “Top Senate Republicans, including McConnell and Thune have privately encouraged GOP senators to proactively relay their concerns to the White House if they hear about a potential nominee who would run into confirmation troubles in the Senate.”

Anxiety on the Hill, even from fellow Republicans, about Trump’s potential picks is not new. In a more traditional Washington confirmation process, the White House might compare notes with top senators and strike names before they are ever publicly announced. 

Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin argued about the length of an April 9 House appropriations subcommittee hearing. (Video: The Washington Post)

TAKEAWAYS FROM A CRAZY DAY ON THE HILL: Three Cabinet secretaries, the attorney general, and even Candace Owens. Even by current standards, yesterday brought a deluge of news. Here’s what you need to know:

  • Attorney General William Barr testified that the redacted Mueller report will be available to lawmakers “within a week,” but is refusing to release the whole thing to Congress. He also refused to say whether the White House has seen it. Barr did say that special counsel Robert Mueller’s team declined to review his four-page summary letter.
  • Treasury Secretary Stephen Mnuchin testified that White House lawyers consulted with the Treasury Department about the potential release of Trump’s tax returns. As my colleague Damian Paletta points out: "Democrats are asking for six years of Trump’s returns, using a federal law that says the treasury secretary 'shall furnish' the records upon the request of House or Senate chairmen. The process is designed to be walled off from White House interference, in part because of corruption that took place during the Teapot Dome scandal in the 1920s." Mnuchin also managed to get in a testy exchange with House Financial Services Chairwoman Maxine Waters (Calif.).
  • IRS Commissioner Charles Rettig testified that it's his decision on whether to comply with House Democrats' request under the obscure law to turn over Trump's tax returns. But, Rettig added he will make the decision “with the supervision of Treasury.”
  • Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declined to tell lawmakers whether he endorses or opposes a two-state solution — or what U.S. policy would be if Israeli tried to annex some or all of the West Bank, as Netanyahu promised just before Israel’s elections. 
  • Owens, an African American conservative commentator, shook up a House hearing on the spread of white nationalism, including by claiming that the well-documented Southern strategy never happened. My colleague Colby Itkowitz fact-checked Owens' false claim.

At the White House

FACT CHECK: Trump falsely claimed again on Tuesday that it was President Barack Obama's policy to separate migrants from their children at the border. "I was the one that changed it, okay?” Trump claimed.

Yet as The Post's Fact Checker team notes, here are the facts:

  • "The Obama administration rejected a plan for family separations, according to Cecilia Muñoz, Obama’s top adviser for immigration. The Trump administration operated a pilot program for family separations in the El Paso area beginning in mid-2017."
  • And, as Salvador Rizzo writes, "the zero-tolerance approach is worlds apart from the Obama- and Bush-era policy of separating children from adults at the border only in limited circumstances, such as when officials suspected human trafficking or another kind of danger to the child or when false claims of parentage were made."

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A final bow for the "Flash"