WASHINGTON -- Sen. Tom Harkin slammed his own president and party for hatching the payroll tax cut deal that is expected to pass Congress Friday, saying he's "embarrassed" the Democrats are pushing a measure that begins the "unravelling of Social Security."
The bill will extend a 2 percent break in the tax that goes to fund Social Security for the rest of 2012, saving families $1,000 on average.
That lost revenue will be replaced in the Social Security trust fund from the nation's general tax collections, but the plan has attracted opposition from both the left and right on grounds that it sets a bad precedent and adds the $100 billion cost to the deficit.
Harkin (D-Iowa), who has long been a staunch defender of Social Security, hammered it as the beginning of the end for the program.
"This Congress will be making a grave mistake -- a grave mistake -- and reinforcing a dangerous precedent," Harkin said in a dramatic Senate floor speech late Thursday. "And I’m dismayed that Democrats, including a Democratic president and a Democratic vice president, have proposed this, and are willing to sign off on a deal that could begin the unraveling of Social Security."
Harkin argued that Social Security had always been strong and protected because it was funded by its own dedicated tax stream that ensured every American would be guaranteed a basic income in their retirements, and that the program added not "even one dime to the deficits or the national debt."
But he said now that Congress was going to pay for this cut with borrowed money from the general treasury funds, the best argument of the program's defenders was gone.
"With this bill, we can no longer say that. We can no longer say that Social Security doesn't contribute to the deficit," Harkin said.
He argued that a far better plan would have been to simply grant working Americans rebates on their income taxes, the way Presidents Obama and George W. Bush had done in recent years.
Hauling Social Security into the equation, he said, betrays the legacy of Democratic presidents who started the program and strengthened it over the years, from Franklin Roosevelt to John Kennedy.
"This, I believe has been the hallmark and the underpinning of the party that I've been proud to belong to," Harkin said. "Cutting the payroll tax is a bad idea, terrible idea. I'm embarrassed that it's being proposed by a Democratic president and a Democratic vice president."
Several other Democratic senators, including West Virginia's Joe Manchin and Virginia's Mark Warner, along with Vermont Independent Bernie Sanders, were expected to oppose the bill on similar grounds. A substantial number of Republicans were also expected to balk at the deficit spending and vote against the legislation as well. Nevertheless, it was expected to pass Friday afternoon by a comfortable margin.
The bill extends unemployment benefits for the rest of the year, while reducing their maximum duration from 99 weeks to 73. It also plugs a hole in the law that would have dramatically cut the payments doctors receive from Medicare.