Social Security has long been considered the third rail in American politics — those who touch it risk getting a huge shock. And yet on Capitol Hill, there's a growing drumbeat from Republicans to revise the rules of the nation's premier retirement program as part of a larger push to rein in deficit spending. For them, it's an article of faith that Social Security's days are numbered. They want Democrats — especially President Obama — to join their cause, and share whatever political pain may come with it.
Republicans also believe the very best time to fix Social Security is now, during a time of divided government when both Democrats and Republicans can share ownership of any changes. Last week on the Senate floor, freshman Republican Rand Paul of Kentucky demanded an overhaul of Social Security and acknowledged the danger.
"Most young people acknowledge that it's broken — it's broken so badly that the only way we fix it and the only way it can continue is we have to look at the eligibility," Paul said. "But so many people have said, 'Oh, we can't talk about entitlement; you'll be unelected; you'll be unelectable if you talk entitlement reform.' "
Republicans 'Ready And Willing'
Republicans say that without reform, Social Security is bound to be an ever greater fiscal burden. Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama pointed out that last year, for the first time since Social Security began in 1935, the program paid out more in benefits than it received in payroll taxes.
"Social Security is now at the tipping point, the first step of a long, slow march to insolvency if we don't do something about it," Shelby said.
Democrats contend that because Social Security has a $2.8 trillion trust fund built up from surpluses, the program will remain fully solvent until 2037. But as Oklahoma Republican Sen. Tom Coburn says, the federal government borrowed that trust fund money and used up every dime of it.
"The fact is ... $2.8 trillion was stolen from Social Security," Coburn said. "The money was spent. It's broke. And we're going to have to fund $2.8 trillion over the next 20 years just to make the payments that we've got. I would think most people would think we ought to fix that."
But so far, Republicans have had a hard time persuading Democrats — and one of them in particular — to jump aboard the GOP's "fix Social Security now" bandwagon. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell almost daily draws a contrast between the two parties.
"Something must be done. And now is the time to do it. Republicans are ready and willing," McConnell says. "Where is the president? Suddenly, at the moment when we can actually do something about this, he's silent."
At a White House news conference late last week, President Obama did seem to come close to talking about Social Security. He declared that once a short-term budget is worked out, big government expenditures will have to be taken on.
"What it means is, is that we've got to make sure that we're tackling defense spending, we're tackling tax expenditures and tax loopholes, that we're tackling entitlements," the president said.
'This Is A Program That We're Proud Of'
Democrats on Capitol Hill seem even less inclined than the president to touch the Social Security third rail. Dick Durbin, the Senate's No.2 Democrat and a close ally of the president, says for many Americans, Social Security is about the only thing they think they can count on during these hard economic times.
"So it creates a very delicate political climate," Durbin says. "It's particularly hard, I think, for Democrats, because this is a program that we're proud of — its origins with Franklin Roosevelt and our party. And we've stood by it through thick and thin, and I think a lot of people are reluctant to bring it into the mix."
But not Republicans. South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint acknowledges there is a risk in pressing now for Social Security reforms.
"It is politically dangerous, but I think the mood of the country is different than it has been [at] any time in my lifetime," DeMint said. "They expect us to do things to stop the bankrupting of the country."
DeMint wants to let people under 55 set up personal retirement accounts as an alternative to paying into Social Security.
And that's why Maryland Democratic Sen. Barbara Mikulski is deeply suspicious of the GOP push for reform.
"I think it's a stalking horse for those who want to privatize Social Security," she said. "They want Social Security to become a dot-com. I want to keep it a dot-gov."
On Tuesday, a group of Democratic lawmakers proposed protecting Social Security by requiring a two-thirds majority vote for any changes in the program. That measure's lead sponsor is Vermont independent Sen. Bernie Sanders.
"This country faces a lot of very serious crises which should be dealt with yesterday," Sanders said. "Social Security happens not to be one of them." Not for Democrats, anyway.