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Social Security heats up as an issue for midterm elections

Democrats have been taking the offensive, apparently hoping to use Social Security to their advantage as they fight to maintain control of Congress.

By Judy Nichols DouglassStaff writer / August 14, 2010

Trays of printed social security checks wait to be mailed. Democrats have been taking the offensive as Social Security has emerged as another hot-button issue for debate in the 2010 midterm elections.

Bradley C Bower/AP/File

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As if there weren’t enough hot-button issues for debate in the 2010 midterm elections, Social Security is emerging as another one.

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Democrats have been taking the offensive, apparently hoping to use the issue to their advantage as they fight to maintain control of Congress. They’re emphasizing the program’s popularity among Americans, their commitment to protecting it, and their contention that Republicans want to change Social Security to its detriment.

Social Security’s 75th anniversary is Saturday, and Democrats have tied some of their efforts to that milestone. President Obama, for one, talked about Social Security during his weekly address on Saturday.

“We have an obligation ... to safeguard Social Security for our seniors, people with disabilities, and all Americans – today, tomorrow, and forever,” he said. “But what we can’t afford to do is privatize Social Security.”

This past week, Tim Kaine, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, kicked off a campaign that sounded similar themes. And on Friday, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee released a “Social Security Scorecard,” which gives the committee’s views of positions taken by 13 Republican Senate candidates.

A coalition of 60 liberal groups and advocates for the elderly, including the AFL-CIO and MoveOn.org, also has Social Security plans, according to The Washington Post. Coalition members, it says, will “buttonhole” lawmakers who are campaigning for reelection this fall, calling for them to sign a pledge that commits them to opposing cuts to Social Security entitlements.

Even though Mr. Obama and others have voiced concern that Republicans favor privatization of the program, GOP leaders have not been pushing such plans. Both parties, rather, have been careful not to say anything about Social Security that would alienate retirement-age voters, who are a sizable part of the electorate in midterm elections.

Although Rep. Paul Ryan (R) of Wisconsin has come out with a proposal that would make changes to Social Security, just a handful of Republican lawmakers support that measure, according to the Post. Representative Ryan is the senior Republican on the House Budget Committee.

That’s not to say that Republicans are going along with the Democrats’ approach. “... Democrats have resorted to fear-mongering in an attempt to divert voters’ attention away from their failed economic record,” The New York Times quoted Katie Wright, a spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee, as saying. “Republicans are committed to making the reforms necessary to ensure the future of Social Security.”

Indeed, more proposed changes to the program could be coming. A bipartisan fiscal commission examining America’s federal deficits and debt is expected to come out with recommendations later this year. Many have speculated that the commission could recommend a change (or changes) to Social Security. A frequently cited idea: raising the retirement age at which people qualify for Social Security benefits.

In 2037, it's estimated, Social Security’s combined trust funds will be exhausted. But that doesn’t mean that benefits would stop: Rather, the tax revenue coming in would pay about 78 percent of benefits, according to a report earlier this month from the Obama administration.

This year, in fact, tax revenues are expected to fall slightly below Social Security's costs. This would be the first time this has happened since 1983. Although revenues are projected to exceed costs from 2012 to 2014, that is expected to switch permanently in 2015.

According to a new AARP survey, Social Security remains a popular government program. But only 35 percent of nonretirees say they are “very” or “somewhat” confident in the future of Social Security. However, the survey also found that half of nonretired adults would be willing to pay more now in payroll taxes to ensure Social Security both for today’s older people and for themselves.

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