Senate Democrats, already divided on how to deal with Social Security, were caught off guard Thursday by a new push from the White House to include the senior safety net in a larger debt and deficit reduction deal.
The surprise news that President Barack Obama intends to ask for Social Security reform in a White House meeting with Congressional leaders, first reported by the Washington Post, is just the latest example of how Congressional Democrats have been kept out of the loop of the White Houseís thinking. Earlier this week, Obama had rejected separate invitations to meet with Senate leaders Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and kept Reid in the dark about plans for Thursdayís larger bicameral, bipartisan session.
But scheduling is one thing, decisions on policy issues that divide even Members of the presidentís own caucus are a whole different ball game, and Members found out about the Social Security trial balloon from the media, not the White House.
ďAll Iíve seen are press reports, and so I really donít know how itís being handled,Ē said Senate Budget Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.). ďIíve never believed that Social Security should be used for deficit reduction.Ē
Conrad, who served on the presidentís fiscal commission last winter and was a member of the Senateís bipartisan ďgang of six,Ē added: ďAny savings from Social Security should be used to extend the solvency of Social Security ó thatís what the commission did. Every effort Iíve been a part of, thatís the way Social Security was treated.Ē
Itís widely accepted on the Hill that of all the entitlements, Social Security has the least significant amount of impact on the deficit. Even McConnell has said it does not need to be reformed as part of the ongoing talks to produce a budget package that would accompany any vote to raise the nationís debt limit.
But Conradís position falls somewhere in the middle of those within his party. Reid has said repeatedly that Social Security should not be touched. Moderate Democrats like Mark Warner of Virginia, a fellow gang of six member, and Tom Carper (Del.), would like Social Security reform and are pleased the president could address it.
Moreover, Democrats have gained momentum as of late by attacking Republicans on entitlement reform. They used the House-approved budget crafted by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) as a jumping off point to win a special election in New York and to coalesce around a unified message. Social Security, however, might not be as simple and the support of Caucus members may be much less easy to corral.