The United States Senate is taking away with one hand, but giving with the other as it works on the 1986 federal budget. Only hours after a GOP budget package limiting social security increases squeaked through on a preliminary vote, the upper chamber became the scene of an intense race to win credit for restoring the pension program to full funding.
Republicans vied with Democrats to become the first to offer the amendment to give the nation's 35.5 million social security recipients full cost-of-living adjustments (COLAs) during the next three years. And since the Republicans have the majority, they were ensured the honor of becoming what majority leader Robert Dole (R) of Kansas called the ``heroes'' of the amendment.
Shortly before the vote on social security, a big margin for keeping the program unchanged was virtually assured. Republicans who had on Tuesday voted for the budget reduction package on Wednesday lined up to revise the social security cutbacks.
Senator Dole all but conceded that the GOP budget plan would be picked apart as more than 50 amendments are offered to change it. He said that the 50-to-49 party-line vote for the budget Tuesday was ``important'' because it set the ``parameters'' for deficit reduction at about $50 billion for 1986 and $300 billion in savings over three years. Those targets are included in the package worked out by Senate GOP leaders and the President.
By far the most controversial proposal in the package has been the social security COLA provision. That change would have put a cap of 2 percent on social security increases for 1986. In '87 and '88, the COLA would be 2 percent plus an additional increase if inflation topped 4 percent.
For the average widow on social security, the plan would have meant a loss of $12 per month next year, increasing to a loss each month of $25 in 1987 and $38 in 1988, according to the American Association of Retired Persons.
Under current law, social security recipients receive raises equal to inflation rates if the cost of living exceeds 3 percent.
``How can anyone claim that this is not a reduction in benefits?'' said Sen. Paula Hawkins (R) of Florida on Wednesday, as she became the first to gain the floor and attack the 2 percent COLA plan.
``A reduction in spending power is a reduction in benefits to our senior citizens,'' she continued.
Earlier Senator Hawkins, who is up for reelection next year, had reluctantly backed her party leaders by voting for the overall budget package.
She told reporters that she expected no backlash from voters in Florida, where about 1 in 5 residents receives a social security pension.
Republican leaders, including Senate Budget Committee chairman Pete V. Domenici (R) of New Mexico, argued strenuously that senior citizens were willing to make ``sacrifices.''
But Hawkins this week told reporters that she has traveled home every weekend to visit with constituents. ``I have met two senior citizens who have said, `You can cut mine,' '' she said.
Shortly before the vote, Democrats were largely frustrated in their attempts to blast the social security proposal. Senator Dole carefully maintained control of debate time on the Senate floor.
But Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D) of New York gained time to let loose a sharp attack.
``You don't know what you have done,'' he said to Republicans.
``You have created a monster you can't control,'' he said of GOP spending policies.
Continuing his remarks to the GOP, Senator Moynihan said that now, in the effort to reduce red ink in the government, ``you can't think of anything better to do than to break the President's word, the Congress's word, and the nation's commitment'' on social security.
The charges were a reminder of Democratic campaigns in 1982 that scored President Reagan and the GOP for an earlier proposal to cut back social security. The Democrats made big gains in congressional elections that year.
Some Republican lawmakers are taking that history lesson seriously, leading some to predict flatly that by the end of the budget process, social security will remain intact.