Sen. Bernard Sanders and progressive allies banded together Thursday to try to expand Social Security insurance, saying too many retirees can’t get by on what it now pays and they must stave off any cuts Republicans demand in the wake of their deficit-ballooning tax reform law.
The coalition of 18 Senate Democrats and 130 House members says seniors in their states can’t afford basic living expenses on top of high health costs, yet Washington doesn’t seem to care. The new caucus will brainstorm ways to expand benefits and push legislation.
“Back home, it’s a huge issue. But you know what? It’s not talked about a lot in D.C.,” Mr. Sanders, Vermont independent and hero of the progressive left, told cheering advocates for seniors, the disabled, military veterans and others on Capitol Hill.
A product of the New Deal, Social Security is a federal program offering retirement and disability benefits. It also pays benefits to the surviving family members of those covered by the program.
It’s under stress as baby boomers age into retirement and Americans live longer. The Old Age and Survivors Insurance Trust Fund, which helps seniors, pays out more than it takes in and is expected to run dry in 2034, according to the latest trustees report from the Treasury.
Mr. Sanders swatted away those concerns, saying the program can be strengthened to last decades longer with policy changes that make wealthier people pay more in taxes.
He said Social Security has a “damn good record” of paying out benefits to eligible Americans and cut the senior poverty rate from about 50 percent in the 1930s to 8.8 percent today. One-in-5 seniors is still trying to survive on $13,500 per year, so the program needs to cut bigger checks to retirees who already are fretting about rising health, transportation and heating costs, he said.
The caucus didn’t say how much more beneficiaries should receive, though Mr. Sanders is pushing legislation that would provide about $1,300 a year for seniors now making less than $16,000, while ensuring the program doesn’t go broke for another 60 years.
The law requires those earning $250,000 or more to pay more into the program by lifting the cap on the amount of taxable income that goes into Social Security.
For years, House Speaker Paul D. Ryan has pushed for entitlement reforms to Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, though they have met opposition from Democrats, some Republicans and President Trump, who during the campaign said he wouldn’t cut those programs.
Mr. Ryan has acknowledged that changes won’t occur before he retires next year, but Mr. Sanders said the threat will survive, citing Trump budgets that propose cuts to the programs.
The Vermont independent called the president a “pathological liar” for suggesting at a recent Montana rally that Democrats want to “destroy your Social Security.”
“We are not going to cut Social Security. We are going to expand Social Security,” Mr. Sanders said.
Mr. Sanders was joined by Rep. John Larson, a Connecticut Democrat who said seniors deserve a secure retirement after working their whole lives, and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a potential 2020 presidential contender who said Democrats have staved off proposed changes in the past. “This is not our first rodeo on Social Security,” she said. “This is not the first effort to try to cut it.”
Their plan is an extension of the left-wing push to expand the federal safety net. Mr. Sanders also is leading the charge for a government-run, single-payer health care system that insures everyone.
“We think Americans have the right to quality, affordable health care as well,” said Rep. Debbie Dingell, Michigan Republican who’s cosponsored a “Medicare for all” bill in the House.
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