In a surprise move Thursday, President Obama signaled willingness to shore up the failing Social Security program as part of the debt ceiling talks. Liberals have been loath to fiddle with the New Deal behemoth even though the scheme is already upside-down and on a fast track to insolvency. This is a breakthrough for Republicans, who have demanded serious change in return for their votes to allow more borrowing.
Mr. Obama met with the top eight bipartisan congressional leaders at the White House to move closer to what's being called a grand bargain.
"For at least the past decade, the Democrats who run Washington refused to even admit that entitlements need reform," a GOP aide said after the summit. "The fact that they are even entertaining the possibility of reform is huge and could be the dam breaking."
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi was obviously irked. Speaking to reporters upon her return from 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., the San Francisco Democrat explained that she told the president that "we do not support cuts in benefits to Social Security and Medicare." She added, "If you want to take a look at Social Security, then look at it on its own table, but do not consider Social Security a piggy bank for giving tax cuts to the wealthiest people."
Also lashing out was the AARP, the nation's largest lobbying group for seniors. CEO A. Barry Rand released a statement that the organization would "not accept any cuts to Social Security as part of a deal to pay the nation's bills." He said that "the deficit debate is not the time or the place to talk about Social Security."
In fact, that's exactly where they should talk about it. All one need do is read the trustees' report to know Social Security and Medicare cannot survive dealing out more checks to retirees than it takes in from payroll taxes. As baby boomers live longer, the red ink grows deeper. By 2036, the trustees predict, the coffers will be empty.
After the congressional meeting, Mr. Obama said that "everybody acknowledged that there's going to be pain involved politically on all sides" in order to get a bipartisan compromise to raise the borrowing limit before Aug. 2.
As the president said, this is a unique moment in history, with a divided government forced to address the problems that follow when a government racks up a debt exceeding $14.3 trillion.
After the dust has settled, the bipartisan group will meet again on Sunday. It should use this shared political pain to do what all agree is necessary to shore up Social Security: slowly raise the retirement age, change how the cost-of-living adjustment is calculated and slow the growth of benefits for the wealthiest Americans.
If the debt-ceiling talks come out with real reform to entitlements, our nation might actually stand a chance of economic recovery.
Emily Miller is a senior editor for the Opinion pages at The Washington Times.
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