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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 House’s 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 Thursday’s larger bicameral, bipartisan session.
But scheduling is one thing, decisions on policy issues that divide even Members of the president’s 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.
“All I’ve seen are press reports, and so I really don’t know how it’s being handled,” said Senate Budget Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.). “I’ve never believed that Social Security should be used for deficit reduction.”
Conrad, who served on the president’s fiscal commission last winter and was a member of the Senate’s bipartisan “gang of six,” added: “Any savings from Social Security should be used to extend the solvency of Social Security — that’s what the commission did. Every effort I’ve been a part of, that’s the way Social Security was treated.”
It’s 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 nation’s debt limit.
But Conrad’s 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.
For example, Sen. Debbie Stabenow (Mich.), a Member of the Democratic leadership team, reiterated Thursday that she “strongly supports Social Security and Medicare” and will have to “wait and see” what the White House comes up with. In remarks that summed up where most Senators find themselves heading into the final stretch of deficit talks, Stabenow continued, “We’ll have to see what the substance is first, I have no idea what they’re going to suggest. ... I have made no commitment to just support whatever they come up with. At this point it’s all conjecture.”
Senate aides were unclear as the White House meeting with the top eight Congressional leaders began how serious Obama’s push for Social Security reform will be — whether it’s a legitimate ask or one of several trial balloons White House officials might float in the days ahead.
But one thing is clear: at the end of the day, this likely won’t come down to needing consensus among the Democratic party, but rather finding a deal that can clear a conservative-leaning House and a mixed Senate.
“There 53 members of our Caucus and probably 53 different views on Social Security, but I really think the only thing that matters is what the deal looks like and what can pass the House,” said one Senate aide, who said it was difficult to predict how Social Security might fit into a larger plan. “This is a negotiation between Obama and[Speaker John] Boehner.”