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Why some are worried about Social Security amid debt ceiling negotiations

The midterm elections made two key federal programs seniors rely on — Social Security and Medicare — a national topic of conversation.

Now, as the final vote tally arrives — with a Democratic majority in the Senate and a Republican majority in the House of Representatives — program advocates are also calling the poll results a victory.

The National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare saw more than 70 of the nearly 100 nominees it endorsed win, according to its chairman and chief executive, Max Richtman.

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“Overall, I think it was a good election day and a good election week,” Richtman said. “It was positive for seniors and the programs we care about so much.”

According to Richtman, some key victories included Democratic Senator Mark Kelly in Arizona against Republican candidate Blake Masters, as well as Democratic Senator Maggie Hassan in New Hampshire against Republican Donald Bolduc.

Masters and Bolduc had mentioned the privatization of Medicare or Social Security during their campaigns, according to Richtman. However, the two candidates returned to these comments.

Yet even as champions of preserving Social Security have been reelected or newly elected, other leaders have called for a rethink in how these programs are approached.

Democrats hope to address the issue on their terms during the lame duck session, while the party still controls Congress.

Democrats reject GOP proposals

Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Mandela Barnes is introduced at a Fish Fry to Save Social Security event Wednesday, Oct. 19, 2022 in Milwaukee. Barnes lost the election to Republican incumbent Senator Ron Johnson.

Kent Nishimura | Los Angeles Times | Getty Images

Republican Senator Rick Scott of Florida has called for federal programs to be scrapped every five years so Congress can reassess them. Republican Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin has called for moving Social Security into the federal discretionary budget, which would require reauthorizing program spending each year.

The Republican Study Committee’s 2023 budget also includes big changes, such as raising the retirement age to 70 and requiring 40 years of work. “For most people, this will reduce their benefits,” said Nancy Altman, president of Social Security Works.

Even as President Joe Biden called the election a “good day for democracy,” he vowed to fight the program changes.

“In no way will I support the proposal put forward by Senator Johnson and the Florida senator to reduce or make fundamental changes to Social Security and Medicare,” Biden told a conference. release on November 9.

“It’s not on the table,” Biden said. “I will not do that.”

Still, some fear the program is likely to change as part of the debt ceiling negotiations.

“They were very clear,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said in an election night interview with PBS NewsHour. “They’re going to use the debt ceiling vote as a way to cut Social Security.”

“They call them rights,” she said. “We call them insurance programs that people have paid into.”

Today’s problems “undoubtedly” due to yesterday’s offers

President Joe Biden delivers remarks on protecting Social Security and Medicare and reducing prescription drug costs in Hallandale Beach, Florida on November 1, 2022.

Anadolu Agency | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images

Fears that Social Security and Medicare could be at risk in these debt ceiling negotiations are partly based on past compromises, according to Richtman.

“We’ve seen this before, in 2011 and 2012, when this need to raise the debt ceiling was used to extract some pretty horrific concessions from Democrats on Social Security and Medicare,” Richtman said.

“It didn’t turn out as bad as we thought, but it did lead to spending caps that hurt those programs,” he said.

Today, Social Security recipients and others who seek the agency’s services are seeing long wait times at its field offices, through its 1-800 phone number, or by mail. This is no doubt the result of spending decisions made a decade ago, Richtman said.

As Democrats push to tackle the debt ceiling during the lame duck session, Altman said “it’s the best thing that can be done” to ensure Social Security protections.

“I think their top priority should be to raise the debt ceiling enough that it doesn’t happen again until 2025,” Altman said.

Not everyone sees the impending debt ceiling negotiations as a vulnerable time for the program.

“I think Social Security is unlikely to be put on the chopping block in the context of the debt limit,” said Shai Akabas, director of economic policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center.

With substantive discussions of Social Security reform missing from political campaigns in the run-up to the election, Akabas is optimistic that the two sides can work together.

“There are ongoing conversations that could morph into real plausible bipartisan reform in the near future,” Akabas said.


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