WASHINGTON - The 112th Congress is barely under way and a fight has already broken out - on partisan lines, of course - over Social Security and Medicare.
On one side are a group of five Senate Republicans, led by Pennsylvania's Pat Toomey and possibly including - reports differ - Florida's Marco Rubio, plus two leaders of the now-ruling House GOP. They want to privatize Social Security and turn Medicare into a voucher plan, leaving seniors to fend for themselves in bargaining with insurance companies.
On the other side are Sens. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and Bernie Sanders, Ind.-Vt., plus the labor-backed Alliance for Retired Americans, and the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, among others.
The debate was launched at dueling press conferences on Jan. 27 and congressional hearings the day before. Toomey, Rubio and their Senate colleagues announced they want to privatize Social Security - a move Schumer said would kill it.
And House Republican Conference Chairman Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas, and House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., went after Medicare.
"We know we're making promises to people in the future that cannot be kept. We're all kidding ourselves if we think the (Medicare) program can go on as is," Ryan said, opening a budget panel hearing.
Hensarling, who is also on the Budget Committee, expects the Medicare vouchers will be in the House GOP's budget plan this spring. The vouchers would effectively turn the program over to private insurers, analysts pointed out - by leaving seniors at the mercy of the insurers in direct negotiations.
Hensarling told a panel discussion that Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security are "a Ponzi scheme" that robs future generations. "You can't get there from here" in budget cutting without going after those three programs, he added.
Medicare vouchers would be worth $5,900 yearly per senior, with seniors using them in any way they want to get medical care. The vouchers would be available only to seniors who turn 65 starting in 2021. And the eligibility age for Medicare would rise from its present 65 to 69 for those born in 2022 or later. The voucher plan particularly irked Schumer, who said privatization of one program and vouchers in the other equals the death of both.
"There is a voice not to preserve Social Security, but to end it, from those on the other side of the aisle. The same goes for Medicare," he added, holding up the article quoting Hensarling.
"What they've done is first create a panic" by contending the two programs for seniors are running out of money "and then use the panic to end the programs," he said.
"Their real priority is to set the clock back to the 1920s" before Social Security existed.
"You have a bunch of conservative politicians in nice suits" demanding privatization of Social Security and vouchers for Medicare, Brown said. "That's not going to happen. But if they have five senators now, it'll be a major (GOP) push later."
Those pols, Brown noted, are in jobs where retirement after age 65 can be easily put off, unlike the carpenters, sheet metal workers, restaurant servers and nurses "whose bodies give out" by that age and need to retire.
Sanders made the same points and added that privatizing Social Security is completely unnecessary, because the program is solvent and will stay so - even without any changes - for at least another 25 years.
It would stay indefinitely solvent, he added, if Congress adopted Democratic President Obama's proposal to junk the $106,800 annual cap on earnings that workers and employers pay Social Security taxes on. That would also be fairer: "Lift the cap, so that the millionaire pays the same tax rate as someone making less than $106,000."
The senators are not alone in defending Social Security and Medicare from the latest GOP attacks. Eric Kingson, a Syracuse University professor and co-director of Social Security Works, said 260 groups are already in a coalition to oppose the GOP.
And Richard J. Fiesta, government affairs director for the 4-million-member Alliance for Retired Americans, said its members would hit congressional offices about the issue during next month's legislative recess. They'll concentrate on freshmen.
"And they won't be just in ‘swing states,'" such as Brown's Ohio, Fiesta added. "Our members are in the Northeast, Midwest and the West Coast," where union members are concentrated "and in Arizona and Florida.
"In Florida, they'll visit Rubio's offices. He's clearly a priority for us," Fiesta said.
"He clearly has to understand how important Social Security is to his constituents, his state, and in the money it brings in."