As a critical deadline for the supercommittee nears, Social Security appears to be on the negotiating table.
In private conversations, and now in public, the idea of changing the social program as part of a deficit-reduction deal is gaining some traction — a move that has been politically unthinkable for years.
In a speech Monday in Louisville, Ky., House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) appeared to raise the stakes on a grand bargain that would include major entitlement changes. Standing with his Senate counterpart, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), at the McConnell Center at the University of Lousiville, Boehner said such action would show markets that Congress can tackle the deficit.
“Nothing,” Boehner said, according to prepared remarks, “nothing, would send a more reassuring message to the markets than taking bipartisan steps to fix the structural problems in Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.”
In a brief interview with POLITICO on Monday, Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), the co-chair of the panel, said she was “not going to talk about the details of any package, but I can tell you that everybody on the committee is serious about finding a way forward.”
Asked specifically about Social Security, Murray said, “Everything is on the table, and we’ve made no decisions.”
The public comments mirror private discussions in leadership circles recently about how possible changes to the program could be completed through the supercommittee.
On Monday in Kentucky, Boehner said curing the debt and employment crisis “is personal” for him, likening a bipartisan compromise on the supercommittee to a 1996 bipartisan restructuring of welfare — which was done “by a Republican Congress under a Democratic president, Bill Clinton,” Boehner said.
But Boehner acknowledged a major challenge he faces as he tries to reform massive government programs — the political culture that favors loud voices, bold claims and inaction.
“I want these things to happen,” Boehner said, speaking of grand-scale changes. “I didn’t take this job to preside over a partisan screaming match.”
If the committee were to take up changes to Social Security, it could show that Congress is looking for systemic changes to the nation’s finances — something markets and credit rating agencies want to see. It may not help the committee get to $1.2 trillion, but Democrats are all but certain to insist that Boehner commit to serious changes on taxes alongside such entitlement restructuring.
One Social Security change being floated is a change to the consumer price index, which has been considered in the course of other spending debates over the past year.
Since talks collapsed over the summer between Boehner and President Barack Obama during debt ceiling negotiations, the supercommittee gives those who favor a grand bargain another shot at a massive deal.
And the panel is under a tight deadline. In 22 days, it is set to report its findings. And this week marks an unofficial deadline for the panel: The Congressional Budget Office has said it needs to see the committee’s report for budgetary scoring in the early part of this month.
This is on top of proposals inside the panel. Last week saw a slew of plans put forth by Democrats and Republicans on the supercommittee. Democrats unveiled a plan that would cut the deficit by roughly $3 trillion, which was declared not “serious” by Republicans because of $1.3 trillion in new tax-based revenue — their plan did include changes to Social Security. Republicans rolled out a $2.2 trillion plan, which generates $640 billion in nontax revenue. Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) have discussed a $1.2 trillion plan, and changes to Social Security alongside it could show they are reaching for a broader scope.
Former Sens. Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.) and Pete Domenici (R-N.M.), Alice Rivlin and Erskine Bowles are set to testify Tuesday about their deficit-cutting proposals.
With a 9 percent congressional approval rating and the 2012 election on the horizon, there’s a certain urgency surrounding the panel’s proceedings and finding a solution. Boehner has been publicly pushing the committee to cut $1.2 trillion from federal coffers and has privately stepped up his role in nudging the committee toward the goal line.
Dissension remains though. It’s clear that even if Democrats on the supercommittee got their way, they’d have trouble with the left flank of their party.
“I think it’s a disastrous idea, something I would oppose very strongly in the middle of the recession,” said Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), a liberal who caucuses with Democrats, referring to the Democratic plan. “Millions and millions of people are hurting. And we do not balance the budget on the backs of the elderly or the sick. You ask the rich and large corporations to start paying their fair share in taxes. End of discussion.”
Behind all this, both sides are staking out ground to diffuse blame on a final compromise.
Democrats and Republicans are bracing for the supercommittee to become a historic failure. Both sides are already laying the groundwork for a bitter round of finger-pointing in the event of a messy aftermath later this fall.
“The supercommittee won’t reach a deal,” a senior Democratic senator told POLITICO. “Republicans don’t want revenues.”
One top Republican aide retorted that House Democrats “are on a mission to take down the supercommittee.”
In public comments, Reid and Boehner have traded blame as well.
“Republicans are more concerned with protecting millionaires and billionaires,” Reid said in a sharply worded floor speech Monday afternoon.
Last week, top aides to Boehner said the Democratic supercommittee proposal was a “not a serious proposal,” laying out in a memo why Republicans were unwilling to consider the plan.
There are still skeptics. Some GOP aides scoff at a large-scale compromise, saying it has proved elusive thus far and in this political climate will continue to be an untenable option. Democrats continue to say that Republicans remain unwilling to put serious revenue increases on the table.
“Up to this point, everybody is kind of nailing out their purist position, and I think there’s compromise somewhere in between,” said Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa). “I think the possibility of compromises on tax increases are limited to what tax reform can bring in from economic growth.”
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