Social Security Fix Not on the Menu

Posted May 13, 2009 at 6:28pm

Facing an already packed legislative calendar and scarce interest among liberal Members to cut benefits, House Democratic leaders may have no choice but to continue to push off Social Security reform for another day.

Several key lawmakers have raised concern that the ailing system needs Congressional attention soon. And a new report from the Social Security Board of Trustees shows that Social Security is on its way to insolvency sooner than expected. Still, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) have not signaled any real interest in advancing the issue this year.

Not that Social Security hasn’t been grabbing people’s attention. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner this week talked about the need to focus on reforming the entitlement system. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) — appearing to be waging a solo campaign — has been talking up the need for an overhaul in the near term.

During remarks last week at the Bipartisan Policy Center, Hoyer signaled that Democratic Congressional leaders could kick off bipartisan discussions on Social Security reform as early as this fall, after Congress advances its two biggest priorities: health care reform and climate change legislation. President Barack Obama has similarly said talks must begin soon and that action is critical, but he has yet to offer specifics on timing.

“Of our entitlement programs, I believe we would have the easiest challenge in reforming Social Security,— Hoyer said. “Frankly, I believe Social Security is not very difficult mathematically. It may be difficult politically, but not mathematically.—

Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.), a member of the fiscally conservative Blue Dog Coalition, which has long pushed for a Social Security fix, praised Hoyer’s “very important— speech and said the issue should be on the front burner.

It is “absolutely— possible that Congress can pass legislation on the issue this year, Cooper said. “It’s not only possible, it’s necessary.—

Cooper said Blue Dogs will be making Social Security reform a major priority “sometime this year. We’re very close to Steny Hoyer. When he made that speech, a lot of Blue Dogs sat up and took notice.—

But beyond Hoyer and the Blue Dogs, few House Democrats seem interested in touching Social Security anytime soon. The last time Congress got a whiff of reform was in 2005 when President George W. Bush tried to sell to the nation his plan to partially privatize the system. Congressional Democrats helped defeat the effort but still have a political hangover from the fight.

“There is no freaking way that we can take this on right now with all the tough votes,— one prominent House Democrat said, describing the issue as “radioactive— for many Members. This lawmaker noted that reform may be off the table for at least another two years given that 2010 is an election year.

“It’s one of Hoyer’s things. He’s been talking about it,— the lawmaker said. “I love Hoyer, but I don’t get a sense that this is something that broader leadership is embracing as an immediate priority.—

House Budget ranking member Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) praised Hoyer for bringing Social Security reform to the forefront, but he acknowledged there isn’t much of an appetite to move on the issue right now. Any serious talk of moving ahead, he said, is occurring in the Senate.

While the Senate doesn’t appear to be making much progress either, several prominent Senators have been talking about taking action. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has been pressing for more than two years for Congress to act on Social Security and entitlement reform. And others are on board, including Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), as well as Budget Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) and ranking member Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), who have proposed setting up a bipartisan commission to try to tackle entitlement reform.

But the lion’s share of lawmakers in both bodies are still reluctant to dive in. “We would have done it already,— Ryan said. “Everybody’s afraid of the politics surrounding these things.—

Ryan said tackling Social Security reform sooner rather than later will rely almost entirely on “political will.— “I haven’t seen it yet,— he said. “But I sure hope we get it.—