Last week, during the Senate budget debate, Republicans raised the issue of Social Security reform, and Democrats — surprised that the issue won’t go away — pledged to make it a major campaign issue this year.
“The issue that won’t die,” said Sen. Charles E. Schumer after the Senate narrowly defeated a Social Security amendment to the budget bill.
“It’s going to be one of the big issues in 2006,” pledged the New York Democrat, who is chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. “They just gave us more fuel.”
Sen. Jim DeMint, South Carolina Republican, offered the proposal, which would have let Congress create a reserve fund protected under budget rules to save the Social Security surplus to pay for future benefits instead of other federal programs, as happens now.
“There is simply no way to save Social Security if we don’t have the courage to stop using the surplus as a secret slush fund,” Mr. DeMint said. “We will not be deterred by cynics who offer no solutions.”
The Senate defeated the proposal 53-46, with eight Republicans voting no, but Democrats still called it a step towards creating the Social Security private accounts that President Bush wants.
Mr. Schumer pledged to tell voters that electing a Democratic Senate is the only way to “make sure Social Security isn’t privatized.”
“Any time there’s an opportunity to privatize Social Security, they’ll take it,” said Sen. Max Baucus, Montana Democrat. He said the DeMint proposal was “evidence today that they’re going to stick with it.”
Mr. Bush’s proposal to let individuals divert a part of the Social Security’s payroll tax into personal retirement accounts was “soundly rejected by the American people,” yet Republicans still pursue it, Mr. Baucus said.
But supporters of the proposal said Democrats just want the status quo, under which Social Security will crumble. Mr. DeMint said his proposal stated “absolutely nothing about personal accounts,” but was “about whether you believe Social Security should be saved or allowed to wither on the vine.”
“I’m saddened this amendment was characterized inaccurately as a privatization move,” said Sen. Michael D. Crapo, Idaho Republican. “The American public and future generations of taxpayers will suffer if we cannot address the issues regarding Social Security and fiscal discipline.”
Democrats aren’t the only ones who see a campaign issue. “Those who voted against this amendment voted to raid Social Security,” Mr. DeMint said. “Now, every senator will be on record whether they oppose or support the raid.”
Including interest, Congress has raided $1.7 trillion from Social Security since 1985, according to Mr. DeMint’s office. Mr. Bush’s Social Security proposal never gained enough momentum in Congress, but administration officials, some Republicans and even Mr. Bush himself continue to raise the issue from time to time. In his State of the Union speech, Mr. Bush called for a commission to investigate options for saving the system, and just days later he mentioned his personal-accounts proposal in his long-term budget outline.