Thursday, Feb. 10, 2011 | 8:55 a.m.
WASHINGTON - Republicans care about Social Security, too.
Or at least that appears to be the message Nevada Rep. Dean Heller is trying to send with a new bill he’s filed this week, prioritizing Social Security over other spending in case of a doomsday scenario everyone is talking about but no one is yet trying to fix: a crash into the country’s legal debt ceiling. That would precipitate a shutdown of the government until the debt either comes back below legally permissible levels, or Congress tweaks the law.
If that happens, Heller’s bill says, there should be only two priorities for spending tax dollars: paying Social Security checks and paying down foreign debt.
“The truth is government spending has to be substantially cut if we are to set our nation on a fiscally sustainable path,” Heller said in a statement. “However, Nevada’s seniors should not be casualties to the politics of Washington. Paying our debts and ensuring seniors are protected should be priorities for both parties in Congress.”
The idea for the bill didn’t seem to start with Heller -- his bill is actually companion legislation to a bill submitted in the Senate by David Vitter, a Republican of Louisiana. Both also advocate passing a balanced budget amendment -- as does Republican Sen. John Ensign -- to force the government, as a matter of constitutional importance, to level out its annual debt spending. Heller helped write that legislation in the House.
But while the measure should bring seniors a welcome sigh of relief, Democrats are crying foul over what they say are misplaced priorities: planning for doomsday but not doing anything to stave it off.
“Not only is Dean Heller refusing to take a government shutdown off the table that would deny Nevada seniors their Medicare, he actually advocates paying the Chinese before the salaries of U.S. troops and the benefits American veterans have earned,” said an aide to one Democratic member of the delegation, calling that outlook “irresponsible.”
Some Republicans have threatened to vote against increasing the debt ceiling, to which the country is perilously close: presently the national debt level is $14.117 trillion, and the debt ceiling is $14.294 trillion. Economists are predicting impact in March or April.
While leadership hasn’t taken that option off the table, most Republicans say they are willing to trade serious cuts to the budget in exchange for a vote to raise the debt ceiling slightly -- that’s been the compromise position floated by Ensign, and House Speaker John Boehner, a close ally of Heller’s.
Heller hasn’t himself declared how he’ll vote on the debt ceiling -- he's only called for the administration and Congress to get together and talk bout the country’s long-term fiscal future. He’s voted against raising it in the past -- but then again, so has Harry Reid.
Reid's office hasn’t been shying away from doomsday forecasting either. If the government shuts down, whether it’s over a budget impasse or because the country overruns the debt ceiling, it predicts 276,600 Nevadans would be in danger of losing Medicare benefits and 242,600 could lose Medicaid coverage, 38,188 Nevadans would lose federal retirement benefits and 243,900 would lose veterans benefits. More than 10,000 active military employees would also stop receiving paychecks, and nearly 1 million Nevadans expecting tax refunds would be out of luck.
Of course one of the most burdensome numbers on that list was the number of Nevadans who were in jeopardy of losing their Social Security in the event of a government shutdown: almost 400,000.
Heller’s bill, if it passed, would appear to stave off that danger for now, but don’t expect that to be the last word on Social Security.
Though Social Security is solvent, parts of it are also on the longer-term chopping block for Republicans, who are looking at program reduction as one way to save money.
Among the proposals recommended by House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan, the Republicans’ appointed mastermind of cuts, are raising the retirement age, and reintroducing the idea of retirement accounts.
Democrats, unsurprisingly, have drawn a line in the sand over the idea of privatization, and Reid has pledged to use his strategic position as majority leader in the Senate to stymie any effort to raise the issue again.