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In Budget Debate, Will Lawmakers Cross Party Lines?

Lawmakers are trying to work out a short-term spending agreement to prevent a government shutdown this weekend.

But even as they focus on the next six months, some lawmakers are looking at the government's long-term budget, including taxes, discretionary spending and entitlement programs like Social Security.

Some Democrats insist that Social Security should be off-limits in any budget compromise, just as some Republicans refuse to consider tax hikes.

But cracks are beginning to appear in those partisan firewalls.

Defending Social Security: An Outdated Tactic?

Our view is that the party that seems most serious and is trying to reach an agreement on deficit reduction will have an advantage over the other party.

Social Security is the federal government's biggest program, and one of its most popular. At a rally in the nation's capital last week in support of Social Security, Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-VT) argued the retirement program should not be a part of any big conversation on the federal budget.

"Talk about the wars. Talk about tax breaks for billionaires. Talk about the Wall Street bailout," he said. "Don't talk about Social Security."

By defending Social Security just as it is, Democratic lawmakers are also defending themselves.

In a series of newspaper ads and robocalls, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has accused Republicans of trying to gut Social Security. "Everyone knows that Social Security belongs to the people who worked their whole life to pay into the system," says one robocall. "But Rep. Paul Ryan wants to use Social Security and Medicare as a piggy bank for the government."

Democrats have campaigned as the champions of Social Security ever since Franklin Roosevelt launched the program in the 1930s. But Jim Kessler, of the moderate Democratic think tank Third Way, suspects that tactic is outdated.

"I think in normal times, that strategy works very, very well," he says. "I don't think we're in normal times right now on this issue."

Kessler notes that even after President Bush proposed big changes to Social Security in 2005, large numbers of seniors voted Republican in 2006, 2008 and 2010. In 2012, he says, voters of all ages seem ready to embrace a hard-headed look at the federal budget, including Social Security.

"Our view is that the party that seems most serious and is trying to reach an agreement on deficit reduction will have an advantage over the other party," Kessler says.

'There Is No Silver Bullet'

Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) says he's ready to bite the bullet, even though he's the target of the Democratic robocall. As chairman of the House Budget Committee, Ryan has said Congress must get a grip on the cost of entitlement programs.

"Is this a political weapon we are handing our political adversaries? Of course it is," he says. "But there's going to come a time in this country when we've got to stop thinking about that and do what we really think is right to save the country."

To be fair, Ryan is just as reluctant to consider tax increases as some Democrats are to consider changes to entitlement programs. Kessler says both sides would be better off if they stopped taking options off the table.

"You don't want to have the battle between who was trying to do something and who was trying to do nothing," Kessler says. "You want it to be two folks who are trying to do something, and then you choose which one is the best. Who has the best tax reform ideas? Who has the best entitlement reform ideas? Who has the best growth ideas? Not whether one is in the game and the other really isn't."

And other lawmakers have shown a willingness to challenge that partisan orthodoxy. A bipartisan group in the Senate, dubbed the Gang of Six, has been working to craft legislation based on the recommendations of the president's fiscal commission, which include spending cuts, increased tax revenue and entitlement reform. Saxby Chambliss (R-GA) says both Republicans and Democrats in the gang have shown a willingness to challenge their own party's orthodoxy.

"For a Republican to put revenues on the table is significant. For a Democrat to put entitlements on the table is significant," he says. "The only way we're going to solve this problem is to have a dialogue about all these issues because there is no silver bullet."

All Ideas Are Welcome

Last month, more than 60 senators seemed to endorse at least the broad outlines of that approach. Thirty-two Democrats and 32 Republicans signed a letter saying budget talks should include spending cuts, tax reform and entitlement changes.

Sen. Mike Johanns (R-NE), who drafted the letter along with Sen. Michael Bennet (D-CO), says the goal is to be inclusive — not draw lines in the sand.

"You know, if I start out today and say this has got to be on the table and that's got to be off the table, we cause certain senators to say, 'Whoa, wait a second. I wonder if I should be part of this effort,' " he says. "What we want to emphasize is senators are ready. They're ready to look at this in a comprehensive way."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Horsley is NPR's Chief Economics Correspondent. He reports on ups and downs in the national economy as well as fault lines between booming and busting communities.