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January 26, 2015

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Social Security issue could divide Obama and Reid


Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun

President Barack Obama and Sen. Harry Reid wave to the crowd after a speech outside Orr Middle School at a “Moving America Forward” rally Friday, October 22, 2010.

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As budget talks come to a head over potential cuts to Medicare and Social Security, the relationship between President Barack Obama and his No. 1 man in the Congress — Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid — is being tested.

The talks present the third existential crisis in Congress since the midterm elections.

Each round has put pressure on Obama and Reid’s relationship — pressure that has caused the relationship to bend, but never break.

In December, Reid gritted his teeth when Obama approached Senate Republicans to strike a deal on a sweeping tax compromise. Then this spring, Reid and House Speaker John Boehner hashed out a budget deal to avoid a government shutdown.

The difference this round? Reid hasn’t in the past staked his political reputation on the subjects that have divided the allies as he now has on Social Security.

“Simply said, it’s off the table,” Reid said of proposed changes to Social Security in January, before anybody was talking about the entitlement program being on the block.

But that’s not what one hears from the White House.

“(The president) is willing to and thinks it’s important to talk about the long-term strength of Social Security,” White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters Thursday, after Obama and Vice President Joe Biden met with congressional leaders on a budget deal that would include an agreement to raise the debt limit before the nation defaults on its obligations, after Aug. 2. “Everything is on the table.”

The White House has complained that the panic and outrage Obama’s stance has caused in the Democratic caucus is ludicrous: Obama hasn’t changed his position since the State of the Union address this year, when he included Social Security on the list of programs the government would re-examine in the long term.

But the issue is that the administration won’t unequivocally say Social Security won’t sustain cuts in the deal.

Reid, meanwhile, has essentially challenged anyone who tries to make such cuts to do it over his dead body.

Reid and Obama’s relationship, until this congressional session, has been a symbiotic one. Reid served as one of Obama’s closest mentors when he was still a senator, and was the strategist and hard-knuckled executor of Obama’s policies during the first two years of his presidency — years when Congress accomplished the most it has in any single session since the Great Society years. In turn, Obama lent Reid political muscle when he needed it most in the final weeks of his last election.

For someone who has taken such a strong stand on Social Security, Reid’s been remarkably quiet about the budget negotiations.

The quiet is more noticeable because Reid’s counterpart in the House, Nancy Pelosi, has passionately and publicly reminded Obama, Republicans, and anybody else who might be thinking of tampering with Social Security, that House Democrats would be happy to withhold their vote from the deal.

But Pelosi, as a member of the House minority, has the freedom of opposition; Reid, on the other hand, is supposed to be Obama’s executor.

Except that on the budget deal, the process appears to have been taken out of his hands.

Last weekend, Obama hunkered down with House Speaker John Boehner. Since that meeting, Obama has set budget targets that are closer to what Republicans want than what Democrats had been considering: about $4 trillion in cuts over the next 12 years, including to entitlement programs.

The meeting is reminiscent of December, when Obama appeared to circumvent Reid’s leadership to strike a lame-duck deal with Senate Republicans over taxes — backing Reid into a corner where he had to agree to most of the deal to save face.

If it looks like the same thing is happening now, some say, it might be strategic.

“Harry Reid can say things that Barack Obama can’t; he can be a more strident voice to counteract the Republican strident voice,” said Eric Herzik, political science professor at UNR. “So instead of ‘oh, he and Obama are just at loggerheads’, it could very well be that Reid is the tough guy on Social Security in a fight that Barack Obama has to kind of stand above.

“If Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell can go at it over Social Security or any part of the budget, that then sets up Barack Obama and John Boehner to get a deal,” Herzik continued.

But by staying quiet, Reid appears willing to break the relationship with Obama on principle no matter how dearly held the principle.

It could be a nod to the political realities, experts said.

“Obviously this is going to create a lot of tension, but at the end of the day, those two are hitched together,” said UNLV political science professor David Damore. “If (Social Security) is part of what the deal’s going to be, they’ll try to reframe it so that it won’t be about cutting, it’ll be about sustaining longevity, and try to claim credit for something else — deficit reduction, throwing off the oil subsidies ... something to hang your hat on to show that circumstances have changed and it’s a totally different situation.

“Reid’s a tough cookie, but he knows that if he wants his state to go blue in November, it’s going to be Obama’s money that makes that happen,” Damore continued.

Neither the White House nor congressional leaders would reveal how a change to Social Security might be structured. But the White House is stressing it wants a “big,” comprehensive budget deal that extends beyond 2012 and includes “painful but necessary” cuts to entitlement spending.

It seems likely that Reid will be pushed to a point where he’ll either have to say no, or eat crow.

After declaring Social Security “off the table” at that news conference this year, Reid went on to elaborate.

“As long as I am majority leader, I will do everything within my legislative powers to prevent privatizing or eliminating Social Security,” he said.

His power may simply not go as far as he’d like.

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  1. The best thing that Obama and others have agreed to is the payroll tax reductions, even if they are only temporary. This has a direct impact on both an employer's position and an employee's take-home pay.

    That said, it is not sustainable as it accelerates the arrival of the time when SS will have to start redeeming the bonds held in the "lock box" (trust fund) which in turn makes it a part of the burden that most be borne by the general budget by either borrowing or turning on the printing presses. Both of those actions only makes our problems worse.

    The logical and obvious solution is to remove the income cap, even if only on the employee contribution. This would probably allow for a lower overall FICA rate for everyone. But that will never get past the Republicans and maybe even some Democrats.

    Reid seems to have his head buried in the sand by insisting that SS is solvent until 2037, which ignores the budget problems when SS must start drawing upon the trust fund in 2017 or sooner. Obama seems to have done the math and is looking to strike a deal if no one wants to take the step I suggested above.

  2. holymosy
    Obama never was for cuts in SS or Medicare, and neither are the other Democrats. After listening to so many "talking heads" on the news, the only reason why Obama seems to be waffling is to compromise with the republicans and to come up with some sort of solution to this serious budget problem. IF he does go with the cuts on these programs, he is history. The Tea Partiers want all this to happen NOW, whereas the traditional smarter republicans want it to take place over a period of time since it is inevitable something needs to be done. The tea partiers in Washington only want this now to save their asses since most will not be relected in 2012. It was a harder job then they all thought.

    The bottom line and sad thing about this: NO ONE in DC cares about the American people. THey are all thinking of themselves and how far they want to go in politics. The voters who voted for those tea partiers were living in a dream world, not thinking they were going to get screwed eventually by these same people they voted for. But then - the social security and medicare issue wasn't such a hotbed of conversation as it is now; the cry from the tea partiers now is "NOT MY SOCIAL SECURITY" when in fact that is what they voted for in these candidates. What did they think was going to happen? They wanted cuts in government spending - they are going to get it and they will be be hit hard just like the more sane voters in this country.

    Let's hope that whatever is decided that the burden does not fall on those who can least afford it. The Democrats understand this, so does the President.

  3. There it is in a nut shell, NO ONE in D.C. cares about the American People. And guess what, as long as Harry Reid is there, even less care. IT IS A PROVEN FACT THAT IF SS AND MEDICARE WERE PHASED OUT IN FAVOR OF PRIVATE ACCOUNTS, EVERYONE WOULD BE BETTER OFF. Harry needs time to get placed on the right board. Wake up America. As far as the Tea Party people? It was a new "starter kit", the idea got trampled on with every "right wing" being able to steal a ride on the name. They will/have ruined the movement. Read everything labeled "Tea Party" before you donate, cause a lot of it is just the same ole, same ole, climbing on board to make a buck.

  4. Enjoyed the article, but I don't see anything jeopardizing Social Security right now.

    What I do see is hardball politics.

    President Obama is doing what he's supposed to be doing. Bringing people to the table and encouraging them to come up with finalizing this debt ceiling thing.

    I don't see any capitulation on giving up Social Security right now. What I do see is the Republicans mistakenly believe that the Democrats will give up Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. And that's clearly not going to happen. I see Senator Reid in the Senate and Rep. Pelosi in the House actually digging in their heels and emphatically stating their position.

    For some reason, there's some kind of belief that the Democrats and President Obama have to do something to fix this debacle. The Republicans, in short, want the finger pointed away from them. But what I see from all of how this is transpiring is that it is simply in the Republican Congress' court.

    THEY are the ones that started this. THEY are doing their damndest to turn this into some kind of crisis. And it's not a crisis because it is in fact a crisis, it's a crisis because they manufactured it into one. What I see is the Republicans are the incumbents in Congress. They are the majority. They are empowered to do a job.


    And because Speaker Boehner has a bunch of Republicans who are far right wingnuts, Tea Party types, Christians Conservatives, anarchists and whatever else type of Republican that is infecting society nowadays, and he can't seem to corral all of them to think alike, IT'S NOT THE DEMOCRATS' FAULT HE CAN'T SEEM TO GET IT TOGETHER!

    He needs to fix Congress, get the votes somehow, and herd all the cats together in one general direction to come up with a logical solution to this. It's not any Democrat's fault he's in charge of a rabble of miscreants and incompetents.

    THEY started this crisis. It's up to THEM to fix it.

    The problem is that it may be too late. This brinksmanship crap the Republicans are doing is actually hurting America.

    Already, there are indications the stock market is edgy. And you have people there at Wall Street that are actually placing money to bet that America will fail. Playing their usual stock market stuff...which don't have patriotism to any country...only a devoted allegiance to money. Add in to all this the fact that the rest of the world is scratching their heads at the very idea that America, a supposed bastion of freedom and very, very trustworthy in ability to pay its bills on time, is doing this madness. Many other countries are edgy right now too. And this is not good for America.

    Republicans really, really need to get their collective fecal matter together. And do it soon.

  5. Social Security, Medicare, Medicade in NO way should be used as a bargaining chip for ANYTHING. They are not entitlements, they are paid for social safety nets and should be exempt from any cuts. Obama (if he had a spine) would never put them on the table and if the Republicon leaderdhip insisted, then he shows them a middle finger, tells them to go to hell....making the Con's responsible for sinking the economy.

    If he allows the Con's to con him once again, caves into them without a fight then one can only assume he simply doesn't want a second term because at that point he's done,...toast.

    Social Security is NOT an entitlement and is solvent for decades. If he gambles that, or gambles it away we can surmise he's not a leader or much of a man,...just a suit who doesn't get it, doesn't fight and ignores the people, many of which supported him. I voted for him because we had NO choice, but since he fell asleep on health care, Bush Tax Cuts, and now this. If he gives in to Boehner there will be a primary challenger for 2012 as Obama's "leadership" will be over.

    People forget Bush (the illegial illegitimate occupant of the White House 2000/2008) raised the debt ceiling 3 or 4 times without noise from either party. Social Security and any social safety net we have in place today needs to remain untouched. The country can't afford to have it's political buffoons mess with it, now or anytime soon.

    Wanna fix the debt,...1 Rollback the Reagan Tax Cuts. 2 Force the wealthy to pay their fair share and repeal Bush Tax Cuts. 3 Eliminate the loopholes in the tax code and force corporations to pay their share in taxes. 4 Stop lying us into to trillion dollar wars we can afford, bring the troops home from all three were in now and start nation building here. 5 STOP exporting jobs and supporting the globial trade deals, the same ones that helped get us into this financial disaster...and as a bonus start making religon pay taxes, they're well overdue.

    Anything less is simple proof Washington, on both sides of the aisle don't care about the country and need to go. If Obama doesn't listen this time,...3 strikes and he's out.

  6. "during the first two years of his presidency -- years when Congress accomplished the most it has in any single session since the Great Society years"

    All they did was inact unpopular legislation on health care that no one wanted.

    They failed to pass a budget. They kicked the can down the road. Now all we hear is complaining that the republicans aren't cooperating. They had the power to do whatever they wanted why didn't they?

  7. I have to admit Bob_Realist has some good ideas there (but I doubt point 7 is legal given sanctity of contracts.)

    That said, I fear the end result would be lobbyists having even more influence with hidden contributions to retirement funds. Not only Congress, but lobbyists and the potential for corruption must be dealt with.

    Maybe then we could get some law makers in place who will look to the American people's needs first.

  8. I think many people miss out on the fact that most of the rich people who pay in the max amount SS every year never collect a dime when they retire. SS has income restrictions for entitlement so if you are rich and set yourself up accordingly so you are not eligible for the SS payments, or at best a much lessor payment. However if you are a baby mama with 4 kids and one to pop you are eligible for max benefits without ever having paid a dime in. Sure, lets raise the bar and let the people who plan for retirement pay more for those who did not.
    Entitlements is a huge part of the budget, I do not favor not helping those who truly are stricken with serious medical problems or the vets who have medical conditions, but I think many on the government payroll should be "fired"

  9. ColinfromLasVegas: The GOP is not the majority in Congress as you stated. They only have a small majority in the House. The Senate and the White House are still in Democrat control.

    And, the GOP in the House has been trying hard to "get things done", though you won't give them credit for that. Perhaps you don't know that everything they are trying to do is being blocked by the Harry Reid-led Democrat Senate.

    It's not the GOP that has things stalled. It's the Senate and the White House.

  10. pgctg141: The Social Security trust fund is full of IOUs because the outlaws in the federal government have been robbing from it for decades. What Reid and others say about it being solvent for decades only applies if they replenish the IOUs with cash. What's the chances of that happening, since we are bankrupt?

  11. Excuse me Mr. Hopkins, but the Social Security Trust Fund is NOT full of IOUs. The trust fund holds special-issue U.S. Treasury Bonds, issued by the U.S. Government, which earn interest. Those Bonds have been purchased by S/S with dollars that each and every one of us who work for a living paid into the system throughout our entire working careers. Social Security does NOT and has NOT contributed to the Budget Deficit nor has it contributed to the National Debt (which is the sum of all the deficits that have been rung up during Reagan, Bush1, and Bush2). Those U.S. Treasury Bonds would only be worthless if Congress chooses to let the U.S. Government default on it's debts, thus destroying the full faith and credit of the U.S. Personally, I don't think that's good for this nation, in that interest on the debt will explode, interest businesses pay on capital they use to operate their businesses will rise dramatically, interest on home mortgages/car loans/etc. would also rise dramatically, and prices for anything you might want to buy could double or triple in very short order. You thought it was hard to find a job over the past couple of years? If those bozos in Washington can't get their poop in a group, it's gonna get a whole lot worse.

  12. RockBlot,

    If a bond is not an IOU then what is? Your very words prove the point: "Those Bonds have been purchased by S/S with dollars ..."