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Social Security Ties Democrats in Knots

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Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is among those who have spoken against recent proposals to cut Social Security.

Democrats are split when it comes to what to do about Social Security — if anything — and the intraparty divide could throttle efforts to get a grand bipartisan budget compromise.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), Democratic Policy and Communications Center Chairman Charles Schumer (N.Y.) and Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.), among others, have all ripped proposals to cut Social Security of late. But Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Budget Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) both backed President Barack Obama’s fiscal commission proposal, which included a Social Security overhaul that among other things raised the retirement age to 69 and shrunk benefit increases for higher-income seniors as part of a plan to shore up the program for the next 75 years.

The split is equally apparent in the House, with Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) speaking out forcefully against raising the retirement age, an idea floated by several of her deputies, including Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), perhaps the biggest deficit hawk in either chamber.

The mixed signals come straight from the top, with Obama confounding deficit hawks in both parties by only mentioning Social Security in passing in his State of the Union address.

Reid joined a press conference held by the Progressive Change Campaign Committee last week where he vowed to oppose efforts to privatize or eliminate Social Security, saying that was “off the table.” That followed up a Jan. 9 appearance on “Meet the Press” in which he declared the program “fine” and solvent for the next 40 years.

Republicans have noticed.

Speaker John Boehner put the issue squarely in Reid’s lap on Sunday.

“We’ve got the Senate Majority Leader who says there’s no problem in Social Security,” the Ohio Republican said on “Fox News Sunday.” “And if we can’t get Senate Democrats and their leader to recognize that we’ve got real problems, I don’t know how we begin to move down this path of having this adult conversation that I’d like to have and I, frankly, like the president would like to have.”

According to a GOP leadership aide, Boehner’s pointed attack on Reid was not an isolated offhand comment but was part of a messaging campaign to place the blame for a lack of entitlement reform on Democrats.

The “spotlight needs to be on Reid and Pelosi,” the leadership aide said.

Boehner’s comments echo statements made by House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), who has also repeatedly blamed Reid in interviews. Cantor repeated the “conversation” meme and refused to back any specific ideas during a “Meet the Press” grilling of his own Sunday. He referenced but did not endorse House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan’s (R-Wis.) “Roadmap” plan, which significantly cuts both Social Security and Medicare.

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