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In 2001, Dems claimed to support Social Security reform -- as long as it meant sacrificing tax relief.

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Remember When Democrats Advocated Protecting Social Security?

In 2001, Dems claimed to support Social Security reform — as long as it meant sacrificing tax relief.

Did you know there once was a time when Democrats admitted they believed Social Security needed protection and reform? Of course, it’s quite significant that, of the occasions they took to trumpet the need to fix the program, they were the loudest when they used Social Security reform to justify their strident opposition to President Bush’s first tax relief package in the first few months of 2001.

Juxtaposing the Democratic Party’s lackadaisical position on Social Security reform today (remember, they actually booed the President of the United States on this issue during the State of the Union) with what they were saying during the budget fights of 2001, when President Bush’s tax relief package was being debated, reveals quite a contrast.

Here, then, are a few excerpts from Democrats during the debates, speeches, and tirades on the Senate floor in 2001. I pulled all quotes from the Congressional Record (CR).

WARNING: This list of quotes is awfully long, but they’re all worth having in your arsenal.

SEN. ROBERT BYRD (W.V.):

    What about Social Security and Medicare reform? When the baby-boom generation begins to retire over the next ten years, financial pressure on the Social Security and Medicare trust funds will rise rapidly as payroll tax income falls short of what is needed to pay benefits. Both programs are expected to have expenditures in excess of receipts in 2016. Where will the federal government find the money to finance these benefits? In the absence of budget surpluses for the rest of the government’s operations, policymakers would have three options: raise other taxes, curtail other spending, or borrow money from the financial markets. If we go along with these massive tax cuts, how will we honor our pledge to protect Social Security and Medicare? [Congressional Record s3674, April 6, 2001]

SEN. JOE LIEBERMAN (CONN.):

    Because of the excessive Republican tax cut and the inadequate size of this contingency fund, Congress may be forced to raid the Social Security and Medicare trust funds or face the prospect of a return to budget deficits. The GOP budget imposes deep cuts on important programs. The Budget Resolution would cut non-defense discretionary spending by about $8 to $9 billion or two percent below the level needed to keep pace with what was provided last year, adjusted for inflation. Funding for environmental protection, disaster assistance, veterans’ medical care, Community Oriented Policing (COPS) and the Army Corps of Engineers would be particularly hard hit.

    [. . .]If we are successful in building on our prosperity, we will be able to guarantee the future of Social Security and Medicare. Everyone knows that strengthening Medicare will require more resources, not less. Yet the President’s tax cut reaches into the Medicare surplus, leaving scant hope for modernization, or a new, meaningful prescription drug benefit, as the President promised. While today’s workers will rely more and more on personal savings for retirement, for millions of Americans, Social Security is still the foundation of their old-age support. We must meet our obligations to our retirees, but we must also seek reforms that will make their retirements more secure. [Congressional Record s3675-3677, April 6, 2001]

SEN. PAT LEAHY (VT.):

    Mr. President, I must oppose this budget because it is an irresponsible gamble with our economic future.

    This resolution sets aside trillions of projected budget surpluses for tax cuts proposed by President Bush that are steeply tilted to the wealthy. It pays for the Bush tax plan at the expense of needed investments in Social Security, Medicare, education, law enforcement and the environment.

    [. . .] After years of hard choices, we have balanced the budget and started building surpluses. Now we must make responsible choices for the future. Our top four priorities should be paying off the national debt, passing a fair and responsible tax cut, saving Social Security, and creating a real Medicare prescription drug benefit. [Congressional Record s3681-3682, April 6, 2001]

SEN. CARL LEVIN (MICH.):

    In approaching our Federal budget, I believe we should divide the projected surplus among four budget goals: giving the American people fair and fiscally responsible tax relief, paying down the debt, protecting Social Security and Medicare, and responsibly investing in key priorities such as education, prescription drug coverage for seniors, environmental protection and national defense.

    [. . .] Understanding that these projections are uncertain, here’s what I think should be done with surplus dollars that actually materialize:

    First, I would protect the Social Security and Medicare trust funds. We have to take prudent steps today to ensure that as 77 million baby boomers retire over the next 30 years, the costs of their Social Security and Medicare won’t explode the Federal budget. In just 15 years, the Social Security and Medicare programs will require transfers from the “non-Social Security and non-Medicare” side of the Federal budget in order to pay benefits. Without reform, these transfers will get larger and larger, placing enormous pressure on the federal budget–pressure that would be compounded if President Bush’s proposed tax cuts were enacted. Thus I think it is imperative to set aside the surpluses that are currently accumulating in these trust funds and not use them for new spending or tax cuts–as the President’s budget proposes to do.

    [. . .] As budget debate continues in the weeks ahead, Congress will be making some important decisions regarding our country’s future. We have the ability to provide targeted tax relief, fund some important national priorities and protect Social Security and Medicare for future generations, while dedicating significant resources to paying down the national debt. To achieve all of these goals, we need to act wisely today so that we strengthen our economy in the long run, not weaken it once again by risking a large Federal deficit with an excessive tax cut benefiting mostly those who need it least. [Congressional Record s3683-3684, April 6, 2001]

SEN. TED KENNEDY (MASS.):

    Mr. President, at the heart of the budget dispute between Republicans and Democrats is the size of President Bush’s proposed tax cut. Republicans claim the surplus is so large that we can have it all, that their massive tax cut will not interfere with efforts to address the country’s most serious concerns.

    [. . .] The impact of the Republican tax cut on the Federal Government’s ability to address the most pressing concerns of the American people would be devastating. It is too large to fit into any responsible budget. The available surplus over the next ten years is, at most, $2.7 trillion. Whatever we do over the next decade to address this country’s unmet needs must be paid for from that amount. Whatever we want to do to financially strengthen Social Security and Medicare for future retirees must be funded from that amount.

    [. . .] The Democratic budget plan stands in stark contrast to the Republican plan. Budgets are a reflection of our real values, and these two budgets clearly demonstrate how different the values of the two parties are. In political speeches, it is easy to be all things to all people. But the budget we vote for shows who we really are and what we really stand for. Our budget is geared to the needs of working families. It will provide them with tax relief, but it will also address their education and health care needs. And it will protect Social Security and Medicare, on which they depend for secure retirement.

    There are four criteria by which we should evaluate a budget plan: 1. is it a fiscally responsible, balanced program? 2. does it protect Social Security and Medicare for future generations?, 3. does it adequately address America’s urgent national needs?, and 4. does it distribute the benefits of the surplus fairly amongst all Americans? By each yardstick, the Republican budget fails to measure up. The Democratic budget is a far sounder blueprint for building America’s future.

    [. . .] By consuming $2.5 trillion of the $2.7 trillion available surplus on tax cuts, the Republican budget would leave virtually nothing over the next ten years: to strengthen Social Security and Medicare before the baby boomers retire. . . .

    [. . .] The Social Security and Medicare surpluses are comprised of payroll taxes that workers deposit with the Government to pay for their future Social Security and Medicare benefits. Just because the Government does not pay all those dollars out this year does not make us free to spend them. Over the next ten years, Social Security will take in $2.5 trillion more dollars than it will pay out and Medicare will take in $400 billion more dollars than it will pay out. But every penny of this will be needed to provide Social Security and Medicare benefits when the baby boomers retire. [Congressional Record s3687 – 3689, April 6, 2001]

SEN. PAUL SARBANES (MD.):

    The Democrats have proposed a responsible budget alternative which balances the need for debt reduction, targeted tax cuts, and investment in critical national needs. The Democratic alternative fully protects the Social Security and Medicare surpluses to ensure that we will be able to meet our obligations to America’s seniors, now and in the future. [Congressional Record s3691, April 6, 2001]

SEN. HARRY REID (NEV.):

    We need to be fiscally responsible and protect social security, provide a prescription drug benefit, fund education, ensure a strong and stable military, continue to pay down the debt, and to ensure the funding is available for our Nation’s veterans. [Congressional Record s3695, April 6, 2001]

SEN. DICK DURBIN (ILL.):

    I also want to make certain we protect Social Security and Medicare. If as an outcome of this debate we end up jeopardizing Social Security or Medicare, then we have not met our moral and social obligation to the millions of Americans who have paid into these systems and depend on them to survive.

    I believe the good news about the surplus should be realistic news. We should understand that surpluses are not guaranteed. We ought to make certain that any tax cut we are talking about is not at the expense of Social Security and Medicare. We should focus the tax cuts on working families to make sure they are the beneficiaries so that they have the funds they need to make their lives easier. That should be the bottom line in this debate.

    As I said at the outset, Democrats and Republicans alike believe these tax cuts are going to happen. I believe it is a good thing to do. Let us pay down this national debt. Let us provide a tax cut for the families who need it. Let’s make sure we protect Social Security and Medicare in the process. [Congressional Record s839, January 31, 2001]

SEN. DEBBIE STABENOW (MICH.):

    We believe fiscal responsibility, keeping the budget balanced, paying down the debt, protecting Social Security and Medicare are critical and should not be compromised for any other actions no matter how well intended. We have a train going down the track. My fear is there will be no budget trigger to stop the train before it goes off the track. That is common sense.

    [. . .] I believe common sense would dictate we pay down the debt, we protect Medicare and Social Security , we give a major tax cut focused on our middle-income families and small businesses and family farmers, and that we can do that and also be able to continue investments to keep the economy going. [Congressional Record s5684, May 25, 2001]

SEN. KENT CONRAD (N.D.):

    We are offering an alternative that we think is more cautious, more conservative, and more balanced. We take the forecast surplus of $5.6 trillion, and then we reserve every penny of the Social Security and Medicare trust funds for the purposes intended. That leaves us with $2.7 trillion remaining.

    We separate that amount into equal thirds: A third for a tax cut; a third for the high-priority domestic needs of a prescription drug benefit, strengthening our national defense, improving education, and funding agriculture; and, with the final third, we set that money aside for strengthening Social Security and dealing with our long-term debt because just as we have surpluses now in this 10-year period, we know that when the baby boomers start to retire these surpluses turn to massive deficits.

    [. . .] We also say we ought to reduce the size of his tax cut to set aside money to strengthen Social Security for the long term. [Congressional Record s3264-3269, April 2, 2001]

SEN. BARBARA MIKULSKI (MD.):

    The democratic plan is balanced, fiscally prudent, and leaves resources so we can continue to pay down our debt, and make the balloon payments coming due on Social Security and Medicare. [Congressional Record s5502, May 23, 2001]

SEN. JAY ROCKEFELLER (W.V.):

    The facts are stark: Social Security payments will exceed income in 2015, and Medicare payments exceed income in 2010. We will be forced to tap into the Social Security Trust Fund principal in 2025 and the Medicare Trust Fund principal in 2017. In 2037, the Social Security Trust Fund will be exhausted, and the Medicare Trust fund will be exhausted even earlier, in 2025. I believe this tax bill jeopardizes the long-term solvency of Social Security and Medicare. These programs are fundamental for our seniors, and we have an obligation to ensure that both the Social Security and Medicare Trust Funds are protected before enacting massive tax cuts. [Congressional Record s5505, May 23, 2001]

SEN. JOHN KERRY (MASS.):

    We are about to enact a $1.35 trillion tax cut and at the same time, we have done nothing to deal with fundamental issues resulting from mandatory spending and the retirement of the Baby Boom generation.

    [. . .] Social Security’s trustees reported in March that Social Security’s tax income will fall short of Social Security’s benefit payments beginning in 2016. Medicare’s tax income will fall short of Medicare spending the same year. Social Security and Medicare’s problems are related to the aging of the labor force. In the not-to-distant future, there will be too few workers in the workforce to maintain Social Security and Medicare as pay-as-you-go programs. These are not small problems.

    In the case of Social Security, Congress will have to either reduce Social Security benefits, raise Social Security taxes, or find a third alternative.

    [. . .] The same issues apply to Medicare. The Congressional budget resolution sets aside $300 billion in a Medicare Reserve Fund. However, that $300 billion is needed just to finance a decent prescription drug benefit. In addition, there will be substantial costs associated with reforming Medicare. This year’s Trustees’ Report showed that health care costs per capita will rise. But as I have demonstrated, the tax cut would place Medicare surpluses in jeopardy.

    Dealing with Social Security and Medicare’s financial problems sooner rather than later minimizes the pain for beneficiaries and workers by allowing the government to address transitional costs before the problem reaches the breaking point.

    Congress should be acting in a fiscally responsible way by addressing Social Security and Medicare’s long-term problems while we have the opportunity, while the Federal government is operating under surpluses and not deficits. [Congressional Record s5508-5509, May 23, 2001]

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