The closely watched effort by a club of Senate moderates to craft a bipartisan Social Security reform plan may be stalling out for the foreseeable future.
Semafor previously reported that the group, which is led by Sens. Angus King of Maine and Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, had eyed establishing a new investment fund to finance future benefits and gradually raising the retirement age to nearly 70, among other options. But King, an independent, is struggling to amass support from his Democratic colleagues, with whom he caucuses. That’s contributing to a holdup in releasing a bipartisan framework, according to three people familiar with the talks.
No Democrats so far are willing to sign on as original co-sponsors of a potential final proposal, despite the fact that Sens. Tim Kaine of Virginia, D-Va., and Kyrsten Sinema, another independent who caucuses with Democrats, form part of the bipartisan gang. Both are up for re-election in 2024.
Asked if Kaine was open to co-sponsoring the final product, a spokesperson for the Virginia Democrat responded, “Kaine is not aware of any proposed legislation.” Sinema’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
The Cassidy-King effort has always been something of a Hail Mary given the growing reluctance in both parties to touch Social Security, which is currently on a trajectory toward insolvency that would trigger large, automatic benefit cuts in a decade. A comprehensive fix that extends the lifespan of the program by 75 years — the common metric used to measure solvency — is slipping further and further out of reach.
Both President Biden and Trump, the current front-runner for the 2024 GOP nomination, are pledging to keep their hands off Social Security benefits, dampening the odds of a bipartisan agreement to salvage the program ahead of a combative presidential campaign.
The last Social Security deal in 1983 contained a mix of tax increases and benefit cuts that was brokered by the Reagan White House with only months to go until the program would be unable to pay full benefits. Time is still Washington’s ally, but many believe any major reform effort today would need similar involvement from the executive branch to help steel lawmakers against a barrage of political attacks.
“Senate Democrats are probably looking around and wondering why they should position themselves to the right of Donald Trump,” a Senate Democratic aide told Semafor.
Cassidy has criticized Biden for refusing to personally negotiate on Social Security after a string of mostly staff-level meetings with the White House failed to yield a breakthrough. He’s repeatedly assailed the president for not detailing how he would secure the retirement program. The Louisiana Republican recently signaled the group won’t release a framework that doesn’t have buy-in from the White House.
“What I really admire about my friend Bill Cassidy is he’ll come to the table with just a whole plate of different ideas,” Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said in a recent interview. “Some of them don’t pan out, but he is just so willing to put things out there.”
Two of the three sources said King-Cassidy staff had been trying lately to shore up external support among unions by touting a measure to repeal a provision within Social Security that reduces benefits for some retired public sector workers.
But there’s significant unease among organized labor at being kept in the dark on other pieces of the proposal. A separate person directly briefed on the group’s outreach said Cassidy’s staff had requested an endorsement from their organization without showing legislative language and dodging questions about key aspects of their plan.
Even moderate Democrats remain skeptical about proposals like raising the retirement age, which is enormously unpopular with the American public. “It all has to be in a big package for me to look at. In isolation it’s a non-starter because everybody’s different,” Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont. told Semafor. “You get a farmer, 69, you’re gonna have the shit pounded out of your body by then. Somebody who’s sitting at a desk for their whole life, maybe not so much.”
Room for Disagreement
Cassidy is holding firm that his proposal is critical to extending Social Security’s lifespan while avoiding enormous benefit cuts. A new report from the Social Security and Medicare Trustees recently projected that the program will be insolvent in 2033, a year earlier than projected last year.
“There’s no difference between Joe Biden and Donald Trump’s ‘Social Security plan,’” Cassidy told Semafor in a statement. “They don’t have one and choosing to do nothing is a 24% cut in Social Security benefits for everyone.”