Some senators are eyeing a divided Congress as an opportunity to tackle reforms to Social Security, as the program faces significant solvency issues in little more than a decade.
Changes to Social Security are a perpetually heavy lift for Congress, but they’ve gained traction as some House Republicans float cuts to it as part of debt ceiling negotiations.
“A wise senator said that whenever you see reforms shore up those kinds of programs, it usually takes a divided Congress,” Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) told The Hill this week.
“So, maybe that historically bodes well for something that would make sure that Americans have a secure retirement system,” he added.
Senate Republicans are generally leaving debt ceiling negotiations to the GOP-controlled House.
But separately, there has been growing chatter from both parties in the upper chamber about potential ways to help protect Social Security, which some estimates say is on track to becoming insolvent in about 12 years.
Reports surfaced last week that Sens. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) and Angus King (I-Maine) are working toward a bipartisan compromise to help protect the program, unrelated to debt ceiling negotiations. Semafor, which broke the news, reported the effort could lead to an investment fund specifically to help shore up Social Security.
The senators’ offices confirmed to The Hill last week that both Cassidy and King “have been working on a legislative solution,” but said the “plan is not finalized.”
Sen. Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.) told The Hill on Monday that she plans to meet with Cassidy later this week about a proposal, when asked about the prospects of a bipartisan compromise to protect the program.
“He’s got a proposal, and I don’t know how many senators he has vetted his proposal, but I’m anxious to learn about it,” she told The Hill, adding she thinks “he’s making the rounds.”
On the other side of the aisle, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), a key centrist, recently suggested raising the taxable wage cap for the program.
“If you want to have a quick fix, you have enough cash so people can continue to get the benefits that they’ve earned and worked for, the easiest ways to raise the cap,” he told The Hill, though he wouldn’t say whether the idea would be able to pass in the divided Congress.
The proposals in the Senate come as House lawmakers and the White House spar over whether to include Social Security and other entitlement programs like Medicare in negotiations over raising the debt limit.
Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen notified congressional leaders last week that her office will begin to implement “extraordinary measures” to keep the U.S. government from defaulting on its debt, which recently surpassed the roughly $31.4 trillion threshold set by Congress more than a year ago.
Yellen said the steps should buy Congress until early June to hash out a bipartisan plan, setting off a high-stakes battle in Washington.
Raising the debt limit would allow the government to pay for programs it has already approved, not authorize any new spending. But House Republicans have pressed for any action on the debt ceiling to be paired with significant fiscal reform, but the party is still working out its strategy mapping out demands for the months ahead.
There are divisions over whether those reforms should include entitlement programs, which eat up large chunks of federal spending — federal data showed Social Security alone accounted for about 20 percent of government spending in fiscal 2022, while Medicare made up 12 percent.
Democrats, by contrast, have instead insisted on a clean bill to address the debt ceiling, while demanding Republicans provide specifics about the areas they want to cut.
“If Republicans are talking about draconian cuts, they have an obligation to show Americans what those cuts are and let the public react. … Does that mean cuts to Social Security or Medicare or child care or Pell Grants?” Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said from the Senate floor on Monday.
But despite some support in the Senate for taking on entitlement funding reforms sooner rather than later, there is doubt among lawmakers and experts of the chances of Congress being able to move legislation to help protect either Social Security or Medicare in the current session.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said “ideally” reforms for the programs would be on the table for debt limit talks, but added the debt ceiling “has proved to be very poor leverage for those kinds of fights, primarily because there’s very little interest in defaulting on debt.”
Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) also cast doubt on the likelihood of Congress reaching a bipartisan compromise, sizing up some hopes from lawmakers as “whistling past the graveyard.”
“I was on the Simpson-Bowles commission,” he said. “We spent a year laboring to put together a bipartisan bill and the Republicans walked out at the end of it. So, I’m not very encouraged.”