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Harry's Fight: Mr. Reid and Social Security

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One group of Senators is determined to cut Social Security benefits. Anther is equally determined to stop them. And nearly two-thirds of the Senate signed a letter that took a clear stand in favor of ... well, it's not exactly clear what they want. It's been a battle royale on Capitol Hill.

Now Harry Reid is stepping into the ring.

Reid was an amateur boxer in college, although his current job as Senate Majority Leader usually requires him to act more like a referee. It looks like that may be about to change.

The Defunders

First came the Six.

The media calls them the "Gang of Six." Reporters often describe their entitlement-cutting efforts with lavish and inaccurate adjectives like "courageous." and even "brave." and make generous use of the (undoubtedly consultant-drafted) euphemism, "entitlement reform" - instead of using the more accurate description, "Social Security and Medicare cuts."

("Entitlement reform" is an Orwellian term, in our opinion. Since when do you "reform" something by slashing it?)

The Gang's efforts are often called "centrist" and "bipartisan," too, even though a recent poll reaffirmed earlier figures showing that 77% of Americans are opposed to cutting Social Security. (Erlier polling showed that solid majorities in both parties opposed the kind of cuts the "Gang" is advocating (that includes 75% of Republicans and 76% of Tea Partiers).

That would place the Gang well to the right of the public in general, and even of most Republicans. Nevertheless, the Gang's trying to a develop a budget that includes the Draconian cuts to Social Security and Medicare proposed by two individuals named Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson.

(That's another bit of Newspeak we find ourselves having to correct over and over: The press insists on describing the personal proposal put forward by these two gentlemen as "the deficit commission proposal" or better yet, the "bipartisan deficit commission report." Fact check: The commission never put out a report; it deadlocked and failed to complete its assignment. A more accurate name for these recommendations is "some opinions that two guys have about the deficit.")

For a while it looked like the Six, backed by a well-oiled and highly financed publicity machine, were gaining the upper hand.

Bernie and the Jets

Then another gang took the field.

A couple of weeks ago Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders began organizing a Defend Social Security Caucus to resist any attempts to cut the program. It now includes 19 senators. As The Hill reported, Sanders' original Social Security Protection Amendment was co-sponsored by Sens. Sheldon Whitehouse, Mark Begich, Debbie Stabenow, Richard Blumenthal, and Daniel Akaka.

The Gang of Six, aspiring to be Social Security's defunders, had just met its defenders.

Definite Maybe

Here's where it gets fuzzy. A group of 64 Senators - 32 Democrats and 32 Republicans - sent a letter to the President urging him to engage personally in deficit discussions. The letter said that ".a bipartisan group of Senators has been working to craft a comprehensive deficit reduction package based upon the recommendations of the Fiscal Commission." (The words "Fiscal Commisson" must have been a clerical error. They clearly meant to say "... a package based on some opinions two guys have about the deficit." See above.)

The letter goes on to say that the Gang of Six initiative "represents an important foundation to achieve meaningful progress on our debt." The Senators seemed to make their intentions plain: "Specifically, we hope that the discussion will include discretionary spending cuts, entitlement changes and tax reform."

The Simpson/Bowles "what two guys think" proposal cuts retirement benefits, raises the retirement age even more than it's already scheduled to be raised, and imposes draconian cuts on Medicare - all while lowering the top income tax bracket. (That's right: They want to lower taxes in a deficit reduction plan.) And the letter describes it as the "foundation" for a potential agreement.

Cheap Grace

A number of people, including E. J. Dionne, Ezra Klein and Jason Linkins, have pointed out that 64 Senators can pass a filibuster-proof law. That's why they're called a supermajority. If they wanted a Simpson/Bowles act, they could have passed one.

Like they used to say in the old neighborhood: Who's stoppin' ya?

Dionne strikes exactly the right chord by invoking theologian Dietrich Boenhoffer's phrase, "cheap grace." And Dionne's probably right to suspect that "different senators are saying quite different things in signing this letter." Some, for example, may have been using the letter as an opportunity to introduce tax increases into the negotiation process.

But that's not what the letter says: It says the Simpson/Bowles "coupla guys" plan should be the framework for deficit reduction talks - and that plan calls for severe entitlement cuts. (For our sci-fi take on this letter, see "A Letter From 64 Senators ... In an Alternate Universe.")

It's true that the letter also says "we may not agree with every aspect of the Commission's recommendations." [Correction: The phrase "the Commission's recommendations" should read "suggestions made by a couple of guys with opinions about the deficit."] But entitlement cuts aren't a minor detail in the Simpson/Bowles plan: They're at its heart. By contrast, the Senators' letter uses the phrase "tax reform," which is often used as a euphemism for the tax giveaways for the wealthy also proposed by Simpson and Bowles.

That makes it disappointing to see names like John Kerry, Sherrod Brown, and Al Franken on the list. And it's downright strange to see the names of Sens. Begich, Stabenow, and Blumenthal on the letter, since they also cosponsored the original Sanders amendment.

Whatever these Democrats intended, the net effect was a huge propaganda victory for those who want to cut Social Security - one that could have shifted the momentum in the cutting crew's favor.

Along Came Harry

Enter Harry Reid. As The Hill reported, reported, Sen. Reid told Lawrence O'Donnell on MSNBC that he's not willing to consider changes to the program for at least twenty years. ""Two decades from now, I'm willing to take a look at it," he said. "But I'm not willing to take a look at it right now."

(Note: Harry Reid will be 91 in twenty years - so apparently the retirement age isn't a personal fight for him.)

The Hill observed that "Reid's remarks may well signal a death knell for hopes that lawmakers might be able to accomplish Social Security reform this Congress." [Note: By "Social Security reform" they mean "Social Security cuts." We ain't gonna stop doing this.]

The Hill's report continues:

Republicans in the House are expected to include reforms [correction: they mean 'cuts' - told ya we wouldn't stop] in their budget next month, and some centrist Democrats in the Senate have joined with Republicans ... Those lawmakers have said that changes to the program such as raising the retirement age, removing the cap on taxable income under the payroll tax, or changing the way benefits are indexed to inflation should be on the table.

Reid rejected all of those.

Harry Reid isn't keeping a low profile about his new position. He's joined with Sanders to sponsor a revised "sense of the Senate" resolution stating that "Social Security benefits for current and future beneficiaries should not be cut and that Social Security should not be privatized as part of any legislation to reduce the Federal deficit."

Sanders intends to offer this amendment on a small business bill as early as next week. and he's promised to try to add it to any other legislation moving through the Senate until every senator declares what side they are on. The amendment draws a clear line in the sand: It says that Social Security cuts should not be included in a deficit-reduction deal because Social Security has nothing to do with the deficit.

Corner Man

Reid's now serving as a kind of corner man, overseeing the efforts of Sanders and his Caucus, while also putting himself into the ring in a very public way. He will appear at a "Protect Social Security Press Event" on Monday to kick off his efforts. In response, citizens' groups are offering support [1] with actions like the "Support Social Security Call-In Day," which is scheduled for Monday and Tuesday.[2]
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Reid's Social Security stance is striking in its Shermanesque clarity. It lacks the the whiffley/waffley phrasing so many Democrats have been using lately - as, for example, when the President says he will "not accept an approach that slashes benefits." That elastic language leaves the door open for all sorts of other action verbs: cutting, reducing, eviscerating ...

But while others make vague declarations, Reid's position seems clear: No cuts.

The Next Round

What's next?

The Gang of Six have too much to gain personally to give up now, and the Social Security Caucus seems equally determined. As they do battle, a lot of people in Washington will keep equivocating, doing everything they can to avoid taking a stand until the last possible moment.

But that just became more difficult. Reid's in a position to insist that votes be cast. And by taking a clear stand himself, he's putting pressure on others to do the same. That means battle lines will be drawn. People will take sides, or change sides, or try to stay on the sidelines.

Others may bob and weave, but it looks like Harry Reid has found his fight.
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[1] Many of these events are being organized by the Strengthen Social Security campaign. I am affiliated with that effort through the Campaign For America's Future.

[2] Activists are urging people to call their Senators (1-866-251-4044) on March 29 and March 30 urging them to protect Social Security.

Richard (RJ) Eskow, a consultant and writer (and former insurance/finance executive), is a Senior Fellow with the Campaign for America's Future. This post was produced as part of the Strengthen Social Security campaign. Richard also blogs at A Night Light.

He can be reached at "rjeskow@ourfuture.org."

Website: Eskow and Associates

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