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Senate group eyes Social Security changes as Biden hits Republicans over benefits

Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., and Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, who caucuses with Democrats, said they're working on a package of policy reforms to the seniors' retirement program.
Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., Sen. Angus King, I-Maine.
Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., and Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, are working to propose changes to Social Security.CQ-Roll Call, Inc; Getty Images

WASHINGTON — A bipartisan Senate duo is working on a package of changes to Social Security, wading into choppy political waters as President Joe Biden pummels Republicans on the issue ahead of his expected re-election bid.

Sens. Bill Cassidy, a Louisiana Republican, and Angus King, an independent from Maine who caucuses with Democrats, are leading an effort aimed at bringing the parties together to "preserve and protect the retirement security of all Americans now and long into the future," they said in a joint statement Friday.

“The Social Security fund will be insolvent in less than a decade," Cassidy and King said, adding that they "are hearing out all possible pieces of that equation — like Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill did in 1983 — and leaning on a proven financial model to do so."

The Social Security trust fund is solvent until 2034, according to a trustees report, after which benefits would reduce to 77%, and decline to 72% in 2096.

The two senators offered some specific, possible solutions Friday while steering clear of some of the biggest challenges.

“There are dozens of considerations being weighed to protect Social Security, including locking early retirement at 62, an ironclad protection for lower-wage workers, and seeking avenues to increase benefits immediately,” they said in the statement. “Under what we are discussing, millions would immediately receive more, and no one would receive less.”

The discussions, some details of which were reported earlier by Semafor, are in a nascent stage. It’s far from clear the two senators will be able to agree on a solution that can get broad support in the Senate, let alone pass Congress and get signed into law. It’s also not clear how much buy-in King has from Democrats on his talks.

The two parties are far apart on how to deal with Social Security, with Biden and Democrats calling for new revenues to fund the long-term shortfall and enhance benefits, while many Republicans push for reducing spending in the long run.

Biden has weaponized the issue to attack Republicans who have in recent years proposed a variety of cuts, such as raising the eligibility age of Social Security, hoping to turn seniors who strongly support the program against the GOP.

The issue has become wrapped up in the debt ceiling debate as House Speaker Kevin McCarthy calls for spending cuts. But he hasn't identified what to cut, and has insisted Social Security and Medicare shouldn't be on the table in a bill to avert default. Democrats are demanding McCarthy show a plan, saying his demands to balance the budget are impossible without retirement cuts or taxes.

Aides to Cassidy and King didn't immediately say whether new tax revenues would be on the table to finance Social Security.

“These conversations are ongoing, and we welcome feedback and additional components,” the senators said in the joint statement. “As soon as we have a fully developed plan, we’ll release it for discussion and debate. Taking action is our only option; inaction now will only make it harder later. We choose to save, strengthen, and secure Social Security.”

Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, who is part of the conversations about Social Security changes, said the talks include a potential "sovereign wealth fund," a state-owned investment fund, to help finance the program.

"It's going on. We're discussing that. And the parameters of that approach are being evaluated. It's not locked in concrete yet," Romney said. "It's a reasonable proposition that does not call for changing benefits over the next 75 years. As a matter of fact, it improves benefits, particularly for people at the low end of the income scale, which is something that'd be helpful."

Romney said a higher retirement age is also on the table.

"I think that's part of the attractiveness in getting both sides to come together, which is — in order to make sure that we save these programs forever, you have to recognize that life expectancy is a lot more today than it was when Social Security was established," he said. "And so modestly increasing the age, you know, 20 years from now is probably something that makes sense."