Durbin's Big Assignment

Durbin's Big Assignment

by digby

There's a lot of chatter today about Dick Durbin's insistence (along with Mark Warner's) on injecting Social Security into the debt debate even though it contributes nothing to the debt. (Howie had a particularly pungent response .)

But here's the thing. Ever since Durbin voted for the Catfood Commision report last December, it's been clear that he was going to be the designated "liberal" to validate this position. Last February, the Wall Street Journal reported on an early deficit meeting among the Senate Dems, in which it was clear that Social security was going to be used as a political football:

Top Senate Democrats tried to scotch efforts by Majority Whip Richard Durbin to include Social Security in comprehensive deficit-reduction negotiations, illustrating the challenge facing the bipartisan talks.

The discussion occurred during a closed-door White House meeting this week among negotiators including Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada and Sen. Charles Schumer of New York, a key lieutenant.

President Barack Obama attended, although his contribution to the conversation couldn't be learned. Previously, the administration has offered general support for bipartisan debt-reduction talks.

The confrontation, as well as a flare-up on the right over taxes, illustrates the difficulty of reaching a deal on deficit-control legislation, and how fear of upsetting the party line on particular policies could trump the issue of controlling the debt.
Democratic interest groups have been gearing up for a fight on Social Security, and Messrs. Schumer and Reid don’t want to get in the way. On Friday, Edward Coyle, executive director of the liberal Alliance for Retired Americans, accused House Republicans of threatening Social Security with the spending cuts they are pressing for the current fiscal year. But negotiators appear to be holding firm.

“If Sen. Schumer is serious about fighting to protect Social Security from harmful cuts, he can join the large group of Members already doing that,” said a Senate official involved in the bipartisan negotiations. “But if he’s trying to use Social Security as an excuse to do nothing to reduce the deficit, he’s going to be pretty lonely.”

A spokesman for Mr. Schumer, Brian Fallon, said the senator “believes it is vital to rein in the deficit, but Social Security is not the nub of the problem, and focusing on it distracts from any serious effort to bring the budget into balance.”

The White House meeting Wednesday took place before The Wall Street Journal published an article Thursday detailing the Senate negotiations. The substance of the talks somewhat eased the concern of the Democratic leaders about Social Security, and gave Sen. Durbin some room to press forward, though without any commitment of support.

Aides familiar with the talks say Democratic leaders are willing to let them play out. A framework for deficit-cutting legislation could be circulated to a broader group of senators when they return early next month after a Presidents Day recess.

According to aides familiar with the bipartisan talks, Social Security is being treated gingerly. Under one proposal, lawmakers would be given two years to draft an overhaul to put the system on sounder financial footing. If that effort fails, Congress would be required to vote on the presidential debt commission’s Social Security plan, which would raise the amount of income subject to Social Security taxes, gradually raise the retirement age and slow the annual growth of benefits.

Obviously, I don't know the status of these various proposals today, but it's clear that one way or the other Social Security is going to be used as a bargaining chip in the coming negotiations. Durbin's job is to keep it on the table. And he is widely seen to be Obama's proxy in the Senate, so I imagine most people believe this has the president's blessing. (The fact that other proxies say the same thing, is also a clue.)

I'm increasingly wondering if the intention here is to keep Social Security on the table for the express purpose of allowing Obama to save it. (The fact that Ryan's plan didn't include it makes that possible.) Let's hope so anyway. Messing with it in this environment is bad on the merits and bad on the politics. But either way, it will keep the activist base scrambling for months spending huge amounts of energy to ensure that it doesn't get cut (which will have the salutary effect of keeping us from organizing on anything else.) And in the end, if the president saves it, we will be genuinely grateful and relieved. Sounds like a plan.

The only problem is that these negotiations tend to take on a life of their own and you never know exactly how they're going to come out. Moreover, it raises another question: what would the Republicans get in return?