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Sanders Convenes Social Security Caucus; Schumer Joins

Bernie Sanders has started a Social Security caucus in the US Senate, dedicated to protecting the successful government program. There’s actually been a Social Security caucus in the House since 1982; longtimeRepublican Bill Young (R-FL) founded it, and it’s had a bipartisan membership. We’re in a new era, and I’d be surprised to see much bipartisanship in Sanders’ caucus. But it’s notable for who has joined up already:

“My job is to do everything I can to rally Congressional support to defend Social Security and to rally the American people,” Sanders, an independent, said in a telephone interview Wednesday. “We want to be safe rather than sorry.”

The new caucus will focus solely on defending Social Security, the retirement, disability and survivor program initially signed into law by former President Franklin Roosevelt in 1935 as part of the New Deal […]

Fellow Sens. Charles Schumer of New York, Barbara Boxer of California, Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Shelden Whitehouse of Rhode Island, have also joined the caucus, according to Sanders. It will meet Thursday for the first time and continue to meet “as often as necessary,” he said.

Schumer is basically the co-Majority Leader at this point. Much of the messaging and communications has been outsourced from Harry Reid to Schumer. And pretty much everything he does is deliberate. So it’s notable that he would join this caucus right from the beginning.

The caucus will have a battle on their hands eventually, if not right away. The CBO released a report yesterday that will almost certainly be used to malign ends. Shockingly, when you have a 3-year job recession, and wages stay flat for over a decade, what happens is the Social Security program starts to run a deficit on an annual basis. It’s not until the 14th paragraph that the article bothers to mention the $2.5 trillion surplus built up in the Social Security trust fund over the years. The deficit for 2011 is $45 billion. So 1.8% of the surplus. And the best antidote at this point, of course, is actually finding jobs for people so they’re paying back into the system. Job growth is a great medicine for what ails us on the revenue side.

The Social Security caucus will have some battles on their hands at some point. I’m glad leadership in the Senate is already signed up and on board.

…There’s reason to believe that the White House isn’t done on this issue, either. Here’s a piece from a blogger roundtable with political advisor David Axelrod:

Q: Bill Scher with Campaign for America’s Future. As you know, Campaign was pretty pleased with what the President said — the President had to say about Social Security last night, although noting that the door is still open with some changes to the program.

I was curious, what is the polling telling the White House and telling you as his political advisor how best to approach Social Security? Our polling is showing there’s been a lot of opposition to raising the retirement age, for example. But is your polling telling you anything similar or different in how that will inform the President going forward?

MR. AXELROD: Well, I think all of that is pretty consistent. What informed his thinking on this is that what is true is that in the long term there are issues on the horizon relative to Social Security, as you know, because you’re obviously a student of research. Among younger Americans, there’s a profound suspicion that Social Security isn’t even going to be there. And among older Americans, there’s a great deal of anxiety about tampering with it.

And our goal is to make sure that the program is strong and secure. The President laid out his principles last night, and we’re willing to have a discussion, but those principles are going to inform the discussion.

Q: Speaking of those principles — I’m Chris Bowers with Daily Kos.

MR. AXELROD: How you doing?

Q: I’m doing good. President Obama came out in opposition to benefit cuts and also to privatization. Would he still be willing to talk about those as part of a bipartisan solution, or is he more inclined to veto any bipartisan deal that includes either benefit cuts or privatization?

MR. AXELROD: Well, first of all, I think that — as I said, I think his interest is in seeing the program strengthened, and there are certain things that are not just non-starters for him but I think many, many members of Congress, and that includes privatization, which Congressman Ryan has opposed, for example.

But I don’t think — I mean, this is a delicate time because I don’t think you want to start pre-negotiating or pre-discussing issues to the point where people say, well, there’s no point in even sitting down and talking about this stuff. So I’m not going to, here, start parsing the President’s words and so on.

I will say this. I don’t think — there’s not going to be a bipartisan agreement for him to veto. I think if there’s a bipartisan agreement that it’s going to be hammered out around the principles that he articulated last night or it’s probably not going to move forward. Just the nature of the issue.

So we’ll see what ensues from here.

The door remains open.

UPDATE: Seeing John Boehner repudiate his own claims about raising the retirement age does show how much of a third rail Social Security still is. That’s almost more true for the Republicans, whose base is much, much older and more connected to Social Security than in the past.

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David Dayen

David Dayen

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