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Senate Democrats Assail GOP Push to Transform Medicare, Social Security

By Lauren Smith, CQ Staff

January 27, 2011 -- Members of the Senate's new Social Security Caucus lambasted House GOP proposals to partially privatize Social Security and convert Medicare to a voucher system, which Democrats contend could be offered on the House floor as early as next month.

In a strategic move to link those proposals to Republican pledges to cut as much as $60 billion from the federal budget during the current fiscal year, four senators from the Democratic caucus argued that neither program is causing a fiscal crisis and that tinkering with their operation would dismantle entitlement programs on which millions of Americans depend.

"For anybody to come forward and say you've got to cut Social Security, you've got to privatize Social Security, you've got raise the retirement age because it's a crisis right now is just not true," said Sen. Bernie Sander, I-Vt.

Sanders, along with Democratic Sens. Charles E. Schumer of New York, Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, held the news conference.

Democrats have traditionally fought hard—and successfully—against Republican efforts to allow the diversion of Social Security payroll taxes into private, individual accounts. When President George W. Bush championed such a plan in 2005, congressional Democrats, their labor allies and AARP, the nation's largest seniors' organization, launched a furious campaign in opposition to his proposal. Many Republicans deserted the president, and the effort died.

Some of the current push to transform the programs dates from the "Roadmap for America's Future," which Rep. Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis., the new House Budget Committee chairman, released last year. His proposal, which has never been officially embraced by the GOP leadership, would shift the government-run Medicare program to a voucher system, requiring Medicare to make payments to seniors (initially averaging $11,000) to buy private insurance. It would raise the Medicare eligibility age from 65 to 69. As for Social Security, the Roadmap would offer workers younger than 55 the option of investing over one-third of their current Social Security payroll taxes in personal retirement accounts, similar to the Thrift Savings Plan available to federal employees.

House Republican Conference Chairman Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas, said that a privatization plan could come to the House floor as early as next month as part of the GOP budget and that he expects Republicans to support it.

"We're not crying wolf here," Schumer said. "This is a serious movement to undo the most successful government program of the 20th century that has huge and broad popularity."

According to a Gallup poll taken before President Obama's Jan. 25 State of the Union address, 61 percent of Americans said they oppose cuts to Medicare and 64 percent said they oppose cuts to Social Security.

"In their eyes, they think they're speaking for larger numbers than they are," Brown said of the GOP. "It's going to likely be a major thrust of the Republican effort this year."

Brown and Sanders said Democrats need Obama to take a more forceful role in the debate, with Brown calling on the president to be "combative" in order to beat back the Republican effort.

"Does this country have a serious deficit?" asked Sanders. "Yes we do; it's a real issue. But for people to come forward and say Social Security is collapsing and we've got to cut benefits tomorrow is totally untrue, and we will not let it happen."

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