Republicans Swore Biden Was Lying About Social Security Cuts. Now They’re Questioning the Retirement Age.

Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast

When President Joe Biden called out Republicans recently during his State of the Union for trying to cut Social Security, GOP lawmakers were so offended they literally booed and jeered the president, challenging him to name a single Republican who was targeting Social Security.

Even when the White House later enumerated many such Republicansthe GOP made a big show that Biden was unduly vilifying Republicans for proposals coming from an unserious corner of their party.

But less than a month later, lawmakers from both sides of the aisle are suddenly having very serious conversations that would, in fact, cut Social Security—with a bipartisan group of senators quietly looking at raising the target retirement age for most Americans from 67 to 70.

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While lawmakers caution everything is preliminary, the mere idea of ​​raising the retirement age is already sounding alarms in the Capitol.

The news, which was first reported by Traffic lightcomes amid heightening tensions over Social Security, as Republicans seek ways to cut government spending.

After a forceful pushback to the idea that the GOP was sizing up Social Security for a trim, it seemed like the sacred entitlement of the New Deal was on surer political footing than at any point in the last few decades. Sen. Rick Scott (R-FL), the modern-day boogeyman of Social Security, even amended his controversial “plan to rescue America” ​​to exclude Social Security (and Medicare) from a proposal to sunset all federal legislation and require it to be re- passed.

But the problem for Social Security is that the political reality is running up against a practical reality: Without some sort of Social Security reform, the program is currently slated to hit a cliff in coming years. Members of Congress acknowledge the need to address the issue, but there’s a reason why Social Security is called the “third rail of politics.”

The reported mention of increasing the retirement age is an example why.

Even though members of the working discussions are urging people not to panic, senators are now desperately trying to downplay the prospect of changes.

Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA) described the talks as a “problem solving discussion” and dubbed them as “very preliminary,” noting they’re yet to be “socialized” with the broader Senate. He said any member is welcome to join in.

To him, the primary gist of the talks, which are being led by Sens. Bill Cassidy (R-LA) and Angus King (I-ME), is about considering a new sort of fund to support retirement savings. When asked about news of the retirement age being part of the negotiations, Kaine brushed the idea aside.

“People immediately rushed to that or they rushed to the tax thing. The real origin of the discussion is this new idea,” he said, referring to the fund. “So, every idea that anybody’s ever thought of, yes, has been mentioned. But the purpose of the discussion is this new idea.”

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This “new idea,” according to news reports, is to create a sovereign-wealth fund stocked with $1.5 trillion in borrowed money. If the fund failed to generate an 8 percent return, according to Traffic lightthe maximum taxable income for Social Security—currently capped at around $160,000 a year—and the payroll tax rate would automatically be increased.

Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) echoed Kaine’s sentiment. He described the talks as very up in the air, and suggested any sort of policy changes could be fine tuned. When asked about discussions about the retirement age, he was evasive. “They’ve just presented a multitude of options and all of them can be dialed,” he said.

“But that’s pretty irrelevant unless we have the political will to do what we need to do to save Social Security. So there have been no agreements, no commitments, just mainly listening,” Cornyn added.

It’s unclear how many senators are currently taking part in the working group, but the existence of any working group at all runs contrary to the platitudes Biden just recently laid out. During his State of the Union, Biden said Social Security and Medicare should be “off the books.” And he further elaborated by saying the way to pay for both programs was by “making sure the wealthy and big corporations pay their fair share” in taxes.

That proposal would also come at a political cost, as the 2017 tax reform that Republicans passed under President Donald Trump cut taxes for the wealthy and big corporations—and there’s little reason to believe either party is all that serious about raising taxes. There’s even less reason to believe it’d happen under the type of bitterly divided government we have now.

But as some politicians have continued to point out, Social Security faces a number of challenges. When the program was enacted in 1935, there were 45 workers for each beneficiary. Now there is only a 3-to-1 ratio, with that number projected to go to 2-to-1 by 2034.

To be sure, proponents of Social Security point out that the program isn’t actually going bankrupt. And the choice not to pay Social Security is just as political of a decision as any other government spending decision—only Social Security is supposed to be insulated from those annual spending choices of Congress.

Still, if the retirement age provision were to make it through the working group, it’s guaranteed to cause an uproar among congressional Democrats.

Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH), who’s up for a tough re-election next year, told The Daily Beast that Republicans “don’t negotiate in good faith here,” and that increasing the retirement age would equate to a cut in Social Security . He pointed towards past suggestions by Republicans to privatize the program, which Democrats have remained adamantly against.

The Wall Street Journal and these newspaper publishers that weigh in on this, or the right-wing think tanks that weigh in, and they can work ’til they’re—I’m 70—they can work ’til they’re 70, because they got these inside jobs. But a whole lot of Americans can barely work until 60 or 65,” Brown said.

‘Liar!’ ‘Bullshit!’: GOP Slaps Away Biden’s Bipartisan Olive Branch

Much of the Democratic resistance to changing the retirement age predates news of the idea coming up in reform talks. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) tweeted last month that every time she hears someone suggest raising the Social Security retirement age, “I think, there’s someone who didn’t work construction all their life. Who didn’t carry little kids around as a preschool teacher. Who didn’t help patients in and out of beds as a nurse.”

For others, it was a much simpler answer. Asked on Thursday if he’d consider increasing the retirement age as part of Social Security reform, Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-GA) had a one-word response: “No.”

A common sentiment among senators, including those inside and outside of the group, is that nothing is going to get done in the Senate alone. Members expressed a need for collaboration with the White House in order to make sure any deal on Social Security has support from the administration.

“Unless there’s a pathway to actually get the bipartisan political support and the president’s signature, then it’s all for [nothing]Cornyn said.

Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) was doubtful actual solutions would come out of the group unless the president got involved.

“Even if it’s a good bipartisan group with good intentions, nothing is going to happen until you get the White House involved,” Grassley said.

Asked about the idea of ​​raising the retirement age in particular, Grassley gave a characteristic Grassley answer, stopping mid-walk to explain why he won’t speak on any specifics.

“I never give a substantive answer to Social Security because nothing you’re asking me is ever going to happen unless we get a Reagan-O’Neill like they did in 1983,” Grassley said, referring to a deal on Social Security between President Ronald Reagan and then Speaker Tip O’Neill. (Grassley later suggested The Daily Beast reporter he was speaking with would be “too young” to know any of this).

“Remember, they reformed Social Security. It was busted then, and because of that work, it’s been good for the next 60 years up to 2033. So don’t ask me about this or that. You’ve got to have people sit down and put everything on the table and work something out,” he said.

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